Marketing from the Grocery Aisles: Empowering the Consumer… Maybe

My husband has no patience for waiting in lines, in spite of being an engineer who can sit for hours, concentrating on a single issue, and then take a short break to continue for another marathon session. He known as “Teflon man” for his ability to rarely lose his cool when entrenched in building and gardening projects, doing taxes and financial analytics, and repairing intricate devices.

Give him a basket full of groceries and put him by check-out stands with one or two people waiting in each line, and he starts cursing and assessing which line will move the fastest. Forget about the fact he spent the prior hour checking labels, and evaluating which container of mayonnaise to buy.

When self-checkout terminals started appearing, he was thrilled. No more waiting for cashiers, who in his mind, couldn’t look-up, scan, key, or bag fast enough!

He was empowered to check-out himself! Fijitsu self-checkout

According to a Food Marketing Institute study, 22% of shopping marketing transactions were performed at self-checkout lanes in 2007. Three years later, this percentage dropped to 16%. What happened?

There’s no doubt, self-check-out terminals enable consumers to handle the entire shopping experience from grabbing a cart to pulling products off shelves, freezer and refrigerator cases, and displays; scanning them; choosing a payment type; bagging; and finally snagging a receipt before wheeling their purchases outside. The problem is the myriad of products in grocery stores, coupled with the unique challenge of scanning or entering a code for each.

I’m a rabid shopper of produce and discounted items. By the time I’ve checked the last item off my list, my cart is primarily filled with bags of fruits, vegetables, dried goods from bulk bins, a couple of cans, some dairy products, and a package or two of meat from the sales section. Checking-out requires looking up the code for each type of fruit or vegetable or typing in the code from the bulk bin, and then weighing each bag, before moving onto the next item.

It’s slow, tedious, and usually ends in a screaming match between my husband and me.

“What type of lettuce is this,” implores the empowered checker, also known as my husband, who until recently would have to borrow my glasses to look-up and type in the codes.

“Red.”

“There’s no red lettuce.”

“Green fluffy lettuce with red tips.”

“Is it romaine?”

“No. It’s red. Romaine is green.”

“It’s now romaine.”

“Fine.”

“What are these?”

“Poblano chilies to stuff with turkey meat. These are Anaheims for chili rellanos. And there’s one serrano and a bag of tomatillos for salsa.”

After agonizing through the produce, there’d be fruit to ring up. And being I purchase based on price and not variety, I rarely knew whether I had a bag of Delicious, Fuji, Gala, Gravenstein, Jonamac, or William Pride.

Once through with the trauma of ringing up produce, we’d advance to the simple items with SKUs before launching into scanning items that were discounted, requiring a paid checker to enter a special code or scan their badge to accept the discounted price.

And because my husband is also an avid user of coupons, there was always a stack of clipped and in-store coupons to scan.

It probably took two to three times longer for us to self-check than use a skilled, usually gregarious human checker. Happily, our grocery self-checker experience was short-lived. It wasn’t worth the marital discourse!

On paper, self-checkout terminals make sense. They work tirelessly; don’t need lunch breaks, insurance, sick or vacation time, retirement saving plans, and a host of other expenses that come with human employees. Plus, you can curse at them when they perform poorly without fear of retribution or repercussions.

However, as many grocers and other retail enterprises have learned, a terminal is a disappointing replacement for human checkers. Delays in self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons and payments, and the challenges of ringing up products without SKUs lead to customer dissatisfaction. In addition, retailers suffered financial losses from equipment breakdown, and customers misidentifying produce and ringing up less expensive version of products, such as ground round instead of top sirloin.

While the idea of empowering customers is attractive, it’s important to consider all possible outcomes. My husband continues to use self-checkout at home improvement stores, mainly because nearly every offering has a SKU and he’s not buying dozens of discrete products at once.

When it comes to grocery shopping, however, he almost always chooses to interactive with a person and not a machine. Especially, if he’s not wearing his glasses.

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