Supermarket Checkout Still Stuck In The Past


supermarket-checkoutThe last thing a supermarket shopper wants to see is long lines and empty registers. It can lead to bad behavior on both sides of the checkout lane.

Ten years ago, shoppers envisioned a day when radio frequency identification tags would allow them to whisk shopping carts through a checkout without unloading them — or bypass the checkout lane and ring up groceries as they walked through the store.

But those tags never got cheap enough for razor-thin grocery margins. And we’re still stacking groceries on conveyor belts, a 19th-century invention.

Year after year, retail trade shows buzz with the prospects of new checkout technology. But the pedestrian task of paying for groceries mostly still depends on clerks and shoppers being efficient.

There have been some innovations in checkout lanes, and shoppers will see a few more over the next couple of years.

Smartphone scanners and technology that keeps up with the flow of shoppers may speed up shopping trips, but many chains say they’re finding that their employees are the best weapon against long lines.

More stores are reconfiguring their express checkouts with one line leading to multiple cashiers, which has been proved to be speedier. That system keeps shoppers from developing line envy.

Trader Joe’s, for example, uses a single line for express checkout. Some Whole Foods stores have self-checkout registers, but for quick trips, the single line leading to several cashiers is considered faster, Whole Foods Market Southwest region President Mark Dixon said. Kroger added an express checkout configuration in some of its larger stores.

Choosing the right line can be frustrating even for a scientist.

Dick Larson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor who’s known as “Dr. Queue” because he studies the psychology of waiting in line, says a trip to the grocery store initiates “all sorts of queue calculus. Do I buy that 13th item and then have to stand in a long queue? Do I try self-checkout, risking that I’ll not know how to do the fresh produce? Do I join the slightly longer human-gated queue since the checkout clerk there looks a lot speedier than the one serving the shorter line?”

Kroger, which operates King Soopers stores in Colorado, has been running commercials touting its new checkout system, which monitors customers coming in the door and estimates how many of them will need a lane open in 30 minutes.

But the system relies on managers paying attention to it and opening registers before shoppers get there.

“We know people like our stores, but when they’re ready to go, they want to be out the door fast,” said Kroger Southwest President Bill Breetz. The new system was installed in all Kroger stores at the end of last year.

Some shoppers interviewed last week at a Dallas Kroger said they were aware of Kroger’s new effort.

“I like it, but if they are going to spend all this money on new technology, they should take care of something more basic, too, and bag my groceries,” said Dallas resident Nancy Broden. “I bag them myself most of the time.”

Dixon said Whole Foods is experimenting with technology including Square readers that plug into iPhones and swipe credit cards and other handheld devices.”Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t,” he said. “At the end of the day, nothing beats having plenty of registers and staffing them right.”

{RH-Reporter Herald/ Newscenter}


  1. Meijer stores in the Midwest are pretty good about getting customers through checkout quickly. It boils down to the right mix of staffed checkouts and self-checkouts.

  2. i don’t know why you think there are razor thin margins. look at all the local groceries that have turned into mega supermarkets on 10’s of millions of dollars worth of property that they have acquired on these razor thin margins. They are crying all the way to the bank.


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