Grocery industry embraces technology, ramps up efforts to stay competitive

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Posted: Friday, September 27, 2013 12:00 am

Like many grocery shoppers, Michele Ricketts dreads long checkout lines.

But lately she’s been breezing by the cash register at her neighborhood Ralphs even with the usual crowds at the store.

“In the last month, I have noticed it was faster,” said Ricketts, 27, an actress from Los Angeles. “I thought I was dreaming.”

She wasn’t. To shave precious minutes off wait times, Ralphs has been installing technology to measure foot traffic in nearly all of its supermarkets.

Known as QueVision, the system uses hidden infrared cameras with body heat trackers to figure out how many customers are shopping at any given time. Managers use that information to redeploy workers to the cash registers when things get busy.

It’s already paying off. QueVision has trimmed the average time it takes to get to the front of the line to roughly 30 seconds from the national average of four minutes, said a spokeswoman for Ralphs, which has the same parent company, Cincinnati-based Kroger, as Omaha’s Baker’s Supermarkets.

The checkout system is part of a long-awaited effort by traditional grocery chains to evolve and stay competitive through the use of technology.

The $518 billion grocery store industry hasn’t made a major leap forward since the bar code scanner was introduced in the 1970s. Thin profit margins have kept the shopping experience pretty much the same for decades: squeaky shopping carts, long checkout lines and aggravating scavenger hunts to find products.

“You have an industry that’s been kind of stuck in time,” said Scott Mushkin, a grocery retail analyst at Wolfe Research. “Grocers have to invest. Their business models have been under so much pressure, they’re fighting for their lives.”

Technologies that have recently made their way into supermarkets include digital signs that update prices and locations of products and offer promotions by time of day, such as coffee and granola bar specials for morning commuters. To speed up the checkout process, customers can pay via fingerprint scanners or use smartphone applications to scan bar codes themselves. A self-propelled “smart” shopping cart that can follow customers and lead them to items is being tested.

Grocery chains are now spending the time and money to modernize because they are nervous about losing out to rivals. Big-box retailers such as Target are beefing up their grocery sections, and has been aggressively rolling out its Amazon Fresh same-day grocery delivery service.

Grocery industry revenue shrank an average of 0.4 percent in each of the past five years, according to research firm IBISWorld. Companies were hit hard by the recession as high unemployment and low disposable income forced consumers to cut back on premium products and rely instead on cheaper generic brands and discounts.

U.S. grocery stores are trailing their international counterparts when it comes to embracing tech.

British grocery giant Tesco, a pioneer of supermarket innovation, has more than 5,000 technologists in its Bangalore, India, development center working on new ideas to improve the company’s stores. At a conference in March, Chief Executive Philip Clarke said “a new wave of creativity has been unleashed.”

“Digital is now intrinsic to retail,” he said. “That’s why, in 2013, we will invest three-quarters of a billion U.S. dollars in technology, up threefold in three years.”

In 2011, Tesco launched its futuristic Homeplus market at a Seoul subway stop. There’s no food in this virtual grocery store, only interactive walls around the station that display photos of fruit, vegetables, milk and other staples. Using their smartphones, commuters can buy these products by photographing QR codes printed on the images and paying through their phones. Tesco delivers the purchases to customers’ homes the same day.

ASDA, another British grocery chain, recently introduced a checkout scanner tunnel. Consumers place their items on a conveyor belt, which whisks them through a 360-degree laser scanner. The tunnel reads the bar codes, which ASDA said is “so fast it can increase the speed of scanning your shopping by up to 300 percent.” (Kroger is experimenting with similar technology.)

Grocery stores especially want to appeal to younger shoppers, many of whom tend to avoid traditional supermarkets because they consider them as the place their parents shop. One way to woo smartphone-toting millennials is to make grocery shopping more tech-friendly, analysts said.

Midwest supermarket chain Hy-Vee and AT&T, for instance, teamed up to launch a mobile app with a voice-activated product locator.

The mobile app allows customers to locate products or sale items in any Hy-Vee store, regardless of that store’s layout, said Ruth Comer, Hy-Vee spokeswoman.

A customer who wants to find where the jars of sale peanut butter are located can pull up the ad on the phone, touch the picture and be directed to the correct aisle. Items also can be located by saying or typing the name of the product.

The app also features a built-in shopping list that locates and maps products and helps customers create the most efficient shopping route.

Walmart’s smaller format grocery stores — Walmart Neighborhood Markets — were designed to “make shopping for groceries and general merchandise quick and convenient,” said Deli Garcia, a company spokeswoman.

There are about 250 of the Walmart Neighborhood Market stores nationwide, including four in the Omaha area. Three more of the smaller format stores are expected to open in the Omaha area within a year.

The Arkansas-based retailer also has sought to speed checkout times with the use of its Scan & Go app. Using their smartphones, “shoppers simply scan products while they shop, then pay at a self-checkout counter,” Garcia said.

Last year, Whole Foods loaned a shopping cart to Austin, Texas, tech firm Chaotic Moon, which used it to develop the SmarterCart, a grocery cart equipped with a tablet and Microsoft’s Kinect device.

Users can transfer their shopping list and dietary restrictions and preferences from a smartphone to the cart. When a user places an item into the SmarterCart that conflicts with their diet — say, a box of pasta that isn’t gluten-free — the self-propelled cart sends an alert and can lead the shopper to alternative products.

But in an industry built on human interaction, too much tech too fast could become a death knell for overeager grocers. One early adopter-turned-fast failure was Fresh & Easy, the 6-year-old U.S. chain that was abandoned this spring by owner Tesco.

Patrons at the chain, which Tesco sold recently to Yucaipa Cos., complained about the dearth of smiling employees in the stores, which feature self-checkout machines only.

Consumers “found it a bit alien and saw it as an example of poor customer service,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail research firm Conlumino.

So grocers need to incorporate tech in a way that isn’t off-putting, he said.

“The bottom line is that to work in a supermarket context, technology can be useful but it is not a replacement for the old-fashioned values of good prices, strong service and quality products.”

World-Herald staff writer Janice Podsada contributed to this report.

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