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Kroger tests new checkout technologies in local stores

The Kroger Co., the nation’s largest traditional grocer, is zeroing in on ways to speed up lines at its checkout lanes and give customers checkout options to keep them coming back.

“No one wants to have a great shopping experience and go up front and stand in line for 10 to 15 minutes,” Chris Norris, Kroger research and development application analyst, said.

Eventually, many Kroger customers could see their groceries go through a scan tunnel that rings up their order by taking pictures of their items. No need to manually scan everything by hand.

Other technologies being tested include hand-held devices for customers to scan and bag their groceries as they shop. This way, customers can keep running totals for how much they’re spending and track fuel rewards as they go.

Cincinnati-based Kroger started in 1998 its U-Scan self-checkout kiosks, a major retail checkout innovation.

After several years of testing at a store in Hebron, Ky., and four prototype machines later, Kroger installed in June its “Advantage Checkout” system at the Kroger Marketplace in Lebanon. The tunnel captures 12 images of every item that passes through the tunnel, validating barcodes and product dimensions.

The conveyor belt moves at speeds of 80 feet per minute, compared to 30 feet per minute in traditional checkout lanes, Norris said.

“One unique feature about our Advantage Checkout is you can actually put items side-by-side and send them through the tunnel rather than… one item at a time,” Norris said. “We can scan about 100 to 120 items in a minute, so it’s a lot quicker than the traditional checkout is today.”

Also, five greater Cincinnati stores, including stores in Middletown and Liberty Twp., are testing “Scan, Bag, Go.” Customers grab a hand scanner by the front door and scan and bag their own groceries as they shop.

The first version of the Advantage scan tunnel was more than 20 feet long and 8 to 10 feet wide in a “Y” shape configuration. The newest version at Lebanon is about 14 feet long by 6 feet wide.

A card reader has been placed at the front of the tunnel checkout system so customers can scan their loyalty card and prices.

Changes also include see-through tunnel panels so customers can see watch their groceries travel through — previously some customers worried their groceries were being affected by radiation, among other things.

Compared to U-Scan, which verifies products by barcode and weight, the scan tunnel verifies groceries by barcode and dimensions using 360 degree optic technology. It is not radiation, Norris said.

Originally, a produce scale wasn’t built into the system. Customers in the Kentucky store would use scales placed in the produce department that printed bar codes to be scanned at checkout. Now a produce scale is built-in and the attendant can ring up fruits and vegetables while customers unload groceries from their cart.

“What we came in here for really is to learn about customer adoption” by putting Advantage Checkout in an established store, Norris said. “I think the next test would be to put it into a brand new store and see how customers adopt to it day one.”

Kroger has already collected employee and customer feedback to build its next version, Norris said. For example, as groceries pass through the tunnel, the belt stops if the system doesn’t recognize something or needs to verify a product. The attendant steps to the back of the machine to confirm what the food or other item is.

Norris said one change would be to move the verification point from the back to the front of the scan tunnel checkout lane. The goal is to get the belts to never stop.

Every scan tunnel has an attendant/cashier and bagger. Once purchases are scanned and bagged, the customer gets a receipt printed with a barcode to take to one of three payment stations. At that point, similar to U-Scan, the customer scans coupons and pays for the groceries.

“What it means for the customer is quicker checkout and it’s more hands-on,” Norris said. “We take that cashier out of that role of being behind the counter, putting them up in front of the customer and allowing them to assist in unloading.”

Lebanon store manager James Taylor said customers that choose Advantage Checkout over U-Scan or traditional lanes do so because it’s faster.

“The speed of the checkout on a large order going through the process is a lot quicker, and certainly the customers are engaged in the process from start to finish and they can see the process,” Taylor said.

Bonnie Zirkle of Lebanon said she’s getting the hang of it.

“Normally I would go through the regular checkout. If it’s really busy, I go to the self-scanners and if I only have a few things. If I have a lot of things, I would rather go to the regular one,” Zirkle said.

“This one you can have a lot of stuff and you can still get through really quickly, so that’s what’s nice about this one, is that you get a little bit of assistance and it goes quick. It’s kind of a little bit nicer than the self-scans because they also bag them down here for you and it’s all ready to go,” she said.

In addition to Advantage Checkout and Scan, Bag, Go, Kroger is testing publicly an electronic shelf edge at Cold Springs, Ky., that displays prices, promotional video and other product information electronically on the edge of store shelves. Prices can be updated automatically. Now price tags are changed manually at least once a week and more as needed.

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