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A view from the front end: retailers are putting great effort into what was once the Achilles' heel of even the best supermarkets--the front end.

First impressions are critical as shoppers enter a grocery store, but the last impression is what will remain with them long after their shopping is completed. If a store disappoints a shopper on the way out, the likelihood of that customer returning will be diminished.

Long lines at the checkout, products that won't scan corectly, unfriendly cashiers and shopping bags that rip or won't open are just a few of the many things that can go wrong as a shopper leaves the supermarket. Retailers need to ensure that when a shopper with a loaded cart approaches the checkouts, she isn't worried that it will take half an hour to get through the lane.

Fortunately, improvements in frontend equipment have reduced much of this apprehension. While there is still no substitute for a well-trained, friendly cashier, the checkouts themselves have become more user friendly, both for the cashier and the consumer.

For the cashier's benefit, ergonomics has become a watchword for most checkstand designers and manufacturers. Aiming to cut down on sick days and insurance claims, manufacturers have moved the cash draws and keypads to face the shopper. Designers have also adjusted the height of the tables, widened the counters and conveyors to accommodate bulkier items and reduced checkstand length so cashiers and baggers don't have to reach as far.

For consumers, supermarkets are using checkout systems that help lines move faster. Several chains have equipped their point-of-sale equipment with scanning systems that are able to extend into the cart to record a large item rather than have the shopper and cashier wrestle with a 50-pound bag of dog food. This POS feature is common among other retail channels but is just beginning to infiltrate the supermarkets.

Why are supermarkets playing catch up? It may be because they were the early adapters of POS and universal product code systems in the first place. Super-markets pioneered the widespread adoption of scanning and mass checkouts and made large initial advancements in the early systems. Other retailers jumped on the bandwagon later when many of the newer improvements had become more readily available on second- and third-generation systems.


Self-checkouts have really caught on during the last year. Self-scanning units were first tested in the grocery store about 15 years ago, but up until three years ago, the few units in operation languished as mechanical oddities. Today there are several thousand self-checkout units in operation in the U.S., and that number will probably double during the next few years.

A combination of factors has led to this "sudden" interest in self-checkout. One of the biggest reasons is consumers have less time and patience for standing in supermarket lines. Further, the rise in popularity of the debit card and improved communication between the store and transaction clearing center have made the implementation of self-checkouts easier. From the retailer's point of view, self-checkouts have improved a great deal since those early machines. Instead of several self-checkouts funneling into one supervisory cashier, they have become stand-alone units that don't require a cashier. Meanwhile, operators appreciate the reduction in labor costs.


Now that the mechanics of checkout lanes have been strengthened, scanning accuracy has been improved and customers can check themselves out, what else is left to be done? There is always the promise of radio frequency identification.

While RFID checkout sounds wonderful, the industry should not get excited too soon. The program is still in its infancy and is just getting through its pilot test phase. Starting next year, Wal-Mart will have many of its primary suppliers place RFID tags on their cases and pallets, and the retailer will scan them as they come into their distribution centers. Other large retailers are working on similar distribution applications of the technology. However, observers warn that item-level use of RFID tags is still at least five years away and will depend on how quickly the price of the tags drops. Once the prices become affordable, retailers will likely begin to use RFID technology in stores because many current front-end systems can be easily adapted to the new technology. Many of the newer electronic article surveillance security tag decoders have been engineered so they can read RFID tags with some simple adjustments or optional components added.


A major drive among supermarket retailers has been in the area of security, particularly in controlling retail shrink. The two primary shrink deterrents are video surveillance and EAS tagging. EAS continues to improve from the standpoint that more mannfacturers, especially health and beauty care suppliers, are willing to enter into source-tagging programs. This makes it much easier for a store to implement an EAS program, and because the manufacturer-placed tags are often inside packages, they are harder for potential thieves to deteet and remove.

Retailers are also using surveillance to stop products from walking through the checkout lanes and out of the store. Products placed on the bottom of shopping carts are often never scanned. Recently developed systems check the bottom of carts automatically, either through the use of video or by scanning the bottom of the cart for merchandise. In either case, a signal will alert the cashier to the presence of merchandise riding the shopping cart rails.


Even the shopping cart, the most basic piece of equipment, has improved during the past few years. Recently, plastic or plastic-coated metal has replaced the wire basket to strengthen the cart and better enable it to hold its shape in the face of multiple collisions.

Cart security has become a matter of significant concern to many retailers. Cart wheels have been fitted with sensors that will trigger a wheel-locking device if the cart leaves the perimeter of the parking lot or moves too far away from the store. Wherever these devices have been installed, they have considerably cut down on loss.

Supermarket operators are finally beginning to understand that their shopping carts have to adapt to shoppers' needs. The 'one basket for everyone' concept is being replaced with the idea that if you give shoppers a cart that will make it easier for them to shop, they'll probably put more products in that cart.

Senior citizens can benefit from carts that are equipped with adult-sized seats so they can rest whenever necessary. Shoppers with disabilities can use motorized carts while mothers of small children can use carts with more secure child seats, more stability, better seatbelts and the ability to securely place an infant seat on them. Parents with older children find the "Bean" carts that kids can ride underneath like a car helpful in getting through a shopping trip with as little fuss as possible.
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Title Annotation:The Front End
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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