Big retailers cater to those who hate to wait

Some people love to shop ‘til they drop. But for the rest of us, shopping and running errands isn’t a leisurely passion — it’s a chore.

Supermarkets and do-it-yourself stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s realize that. They also understand that to build loyalty, they need to help customers efficiently find what they’re looking for — and then help them get out of the store as quickly as possible. That’s why more stores are providing more assistance in the checkout lanes, not with additional staff, but with technology that allows shoppers to scan and bag their own items.

According to the IHL Group, a consumer data analyst firm, some $208 billion in merchandise passes through self-checkout systems in North America each year. By 2012, that number is expected to soar to $446 billion.

Not everyone who runs to the grocery story seeks out the self-service lines. And some worry these scanners are replacing people.

But, according to Greg Buzak, president of the IHL Group, “Most retailers are having a hard enough time getting labor.” Therefore, he explained, scanners don’t displace labor. They help stores reallocate employees, especially where they’re needed most — for example, in the food aisles, where customers often have questions.

A survey conducted for NCR Corp., the company that manufactures scanners used by many leading retailers, found that 40 percent of consumers choose self-service over waiting in line.

The company also reported that in the United States alone, stores have installed more than 100,000 self-checkout units.

Some of those self-service units can be found at a Shaw’s Supermarket in Nashua.

“I don’t ever use it,” said Danielle Rapson of Nashua of the self-checkout lane as she loaded her grocery bags into her trunk outside the supermarket. “It always messes up, and then a manager has to come over.”

Sandy Lund, also of Nashua, said she uses the lanes “for small amounts, anything under $20.” She said she never has any problems with it, adding “I love it.”

Traditional service

If self-service lanes are gaining in popularity, who uses them?

“The sweet spot of self-checkout is in the 36-to-45-year range,” said Buzak, “Those are people that are starved for time. Or they may be shopping with young children, and they can get the kids active in that aspect.”

Not surprisingly, 10 percent more men than women become their own cashiers and baggers. Buzak doesn’t attribute these statistics to a greater affinity for technology. “Men,” he said, “are more than likely still not the main shoppers in the store. They’re buying smaller-size transactions. You know, pick up the eggs, pick up the cheese, ‘we’re out of milk.’”

Perhaps more females would prefer the self-service aisles if they took to heart the following data: The average woman can lose over four pounds a year by resisting the impulse items, such as candy and chocolate, at the checkout lane. (IHL Group based these figures on the average purchase and consumption of caloried impulse items, using 200 calories per item, and 3,500 calories per pound.)

Hannaford Supermarkets, headquartered in Maine, has installed self-service scanners in 38 of its 167 stores. Michael Norton, Hannaford’s director of corporate communications, said the company incorporates the technology in any new store it builds or renovates.

Yet, Norton said, self-service doesn’t dramatically improve efficiency.

“The traditional service that people want, the person-to-person contact, is primarily what we think customers want,” said Norton. Simply put, self-service is “another option.”

Still, with a typical deployment of four self-service units with a remote attendant program ranging in price from $80,000 to $100,000, supermarkets must think they’re worth it.

So could that augur the day when grocery store cashiers and baggers have the same fate as gas station attendants and bank tellers.

“If customers get really comfortable with it, it could happen,” said Norton. “It will evolve. It’s not something that will revolutionize overnight.”