Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scanning in the New Year

The nearest grocery store to me is Shaw’s on Post Road. However, with Shaws closing its doors in January and a recent jaunt down to the East end of Westport, I found myself in the Super Stop & Shop.

As I was walking in the store, I noticed a rack of hand-held scanners by the entrance. An employee was approaching customers telling them about this new scanner that speeds up checkout times.

How it works is that each time you pull an item off the shelf, you scan the product’s barcode with a Motorola hand scanner. It looks like a typical barcode reader, but has a color screen and a few buttons on it.

Each item scanned is displayed on the screen of the hand-held unit, including its price and your total price. If you decide you don’t want the item, there’s a simple way to delete the item.

Before you start your scanning, you put a few paper bags in your shopping cart.

As you go around the store and pick up items, you scan each one and place it into one of the paper bags in your basket. I had my four-year-old son with me and he had a blast scanning everything we put in our basket.

While I did not pick up any produce that’s sold by weight or quantity, the employee told me that there are special – and simple – processes for handling these types of sales that don’t include a barcode on a package.

The scanner even offers store specials. The day I was there, I think coffee and peanut butter were shown on the screen.

I experienced three problems with the scanners:

First, my son wouldn’t let go of the scanner. He liked playing with it.

Second, at times, I almost forgot to scan items that I put in my basket. Luckily, my trip to the store was for just a few items and so it was easy to review what I had in my basket (more on this later); and

Third, the check-out procedure at the self-serve register aisle didn’t work properly. For a variety of reasons, the printed instructions at the register weren’t correct (which I was warned of by the employee who gave me the scanner when I entered the store) and ultimately we had to have one of the store employees help me check out.

I did like the technology and will find that it will help me at the supermarket, especially when there are long lines and/or I’m in a hurry with just a few items.

What challenged me was both the obvious and not-so-obvious problem.

The obvious problem is people intentionally stealing items from the store. It would be pretty easy to put 30 item in your bags, but only scan 25 items. While the store reserves the right to “audit” your shopping cart, the opportunity for stealing is pretty high. However, the self checkout aisles already include this chance for people not paying for things.

The not-so-obvious problem is ensuring that all items put in the cart are scanned. While I was in the store with my four-year-old and a short shopping list, I can imagine that someone with distractions (children, a longer shopping list, talking on one’s phone, or similar), might make a completely honest mistake and not scan one or more items while shopping.

This not-so-obvious problem is also probably due to the new nature of the process, but it exists nonetheless. I’m sure after using the system a few times, I’ll be pretty good at it. The good news is that other than the checkout process, the system worked very well.

I don’t know whether the scanners at Stop & Shop are a trial or are there for good. I liked them and think that I could get used to them. And with Shaws closing in January, I’ll have more chances to use the scanners as Stop & Shop will become my closest supermarket.

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