One of the biggest pains about grocery shopping is the often lengthy line to check out.
Alfred Holzheu, owner of two California grocery stores, knows long lines are a problem at his supermarkets, so he is using a mobile app in an attempt resolve the issue.
Holzheu introduced the apps last summer for use in his two stores that let shoppers scan items as they shop. When they are done shopping, consumers pay for what they scanned in the app, receive approval from a store manager and then can leave the store without having to wait in the checkout lane. Holzheu’s supermarkets, El Rancho and California Fresh Market, implemented this mobile technology, which is from mobile app builder FutureProof Retail LLC, he says.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of just how it works: A shopper downloads the grocery store’s app and creates an account, which includes saving a credit or debit card in the app. A shopper uses her smartphone’s camera and the app to scan bar codes on products. For produce, a shopper looks up and enters the item number for each product in the app. She also adds the weight of the produce, as she would at a traditional, stationary self-checkout terminal.
When the consumer is finished shopping, she visits a stand at the store that is equipped with a pole with a sign displaying a QR code and a blue light on the end. In the app, the shopper hits a button indicating she is done shopping. She uses her smartphone to scan the QR code on the pole. Once a shopper interacts with the pole, the FutureProof system pages a store manager for a bag check. The store manager has an employee-facing app, which will send him a list of items the shopper is purchasing and a list of items to check for in the shopper’s cart. The check list is a small percentage of the shopper’s purchase, based on the number of items in her cart, the price of the products and the store’s data on products that are typically stolen.
The manager then finds each item on the list in the shopper’s cart and scans it in with his smartphone app. Once a manager completes this task, the pole’s light turns green and beeps, indicating that the shopper is free to go. The payment card she saved in app is charged for her purchases.
“The bag check goes quick,” Holzheu says. “The system doesn’t force a check of every single item. It takes a sample based on statistics. For example, if the shopper bought 15 items, it might say, ‘Look for these four items.’”
Managers give shoppers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to mistakes at his stores, Holzheu says. If the manager can’t find one of the items, or notices a product in the shopper’s cart that isn’t on the shopper’s complete shopping receipt, he will ask the shopper, “Hey, looks like you missed this, do you want me to add it?,” says Will Hogben, CEO of FutureProof Retail.
While the self-scanning app may seem like it would take more time than waiting in the normal checkout lane, the app, at least for now, helps get more shoppers out the door more quickly than if all shoppers stood in line, Holzheu says. For instance, since app adoption is low, there is never a line to use this method, he says.
Holzheu recognizes that for large shopping trips, this might not save a shopper time. But if a shopper is only getting a few items, and he doesn’t have to wait behind a shopper (or many shoppers) with a large cart, using the app is faster, he says. The app checkout is also faster on busy days, such as this previous Saturday, which was the day before the Easter Sunday holiday. Shoppers had to wait about 15 minutes in line to checkout, Hogben says, but if a shopper just wanted to get a bag of candy and leave that would only take a few minutes with the app, he says.
“It’s not going to be my savior,” Holzheu says of the app. “It’s one more thing to make my place the place where people want to shop. It’s one more arrow in the quiver to make me different from my competitors.”
Another bonus for hurried regular customers of Holzheu’s stores is that after a shopper gains the store’s trust the system will check her bag occasionally, not on every trip. Once a shopper passes the bag check several times—meaning the manager found all the items on his list and didn’t notice any extra items—the system will only prompt the manager to check her cart on 10% of her future shopping trips. When a shopper receives this level of clearance in the FutureProof system, when she scans her app at the pole, it will immediately turn green and beep, indicating she can go without a bag check.
To keep shoppers honest, most stores will likely still conduct random bag checks, Hogben says. The system, however, is set up so that the more bag checks a shopper passes without mistakes, the less likely she is to receive a bag check in the future. For example, if a shopper has received clearance to typically leave without a bag check, if on the next bag check she has no mistakes, her next random back check will not be for an even longer period of time, Hogben says. The opposite is true as well, meaning, if a shopper misses scanning an item on a bag check, she will automatically receive a bag check on her next shopping trip, and it will take more perfect bag checks to receive the clearance status. A grocery store can tailor these checks to what it feels appropriate for its shoppers, Hogben says.
Among current app users at the two California supermarkets, about 85% of shoppers are automatically cleared to leave the majority of the time, Hogben says.
Since these two stores are piloting The FutureProof app, the store has not heavily marketed the app just yet. Each day, about three to six shoppers checkout with the app at each supermarket, compared to the 1,500 to 2,000 transactions a day in each grocery store, Holzheu says. To date shoppers have made about 2,400 purchases with the app. In the last 30 days, 89% of FutureProof purchases were made by shoppers who had used the system at least once before, Hogben says.
Holzheu did not spend a significant amount of money for the program, he says, as FutureProof let the stores pilot it for free. Holzheu did hire an IT consultant to upload product data into the FutureProof system, which he says cost less than $1,000. Between coordinating with FutureProof and training his staff, he spent a couple of weeks implementing the system.
One challenge Holzheu faced was getting his managers on board, as they were skeptical about theft from shoppers and resistant to change, he says.
“Everyone does recognize that the checkout line is a constant thorn in the customer’s side—it’s a constant problem,” Holzheu says. “We all accept that fact, but everyone is used to the ways we’ve done things.”
Once Holzheu’s staff was on board with trying out the system, teaching employees how to use the app was simple, he says.
The cost for supermarkets to implement this program ranges in the tens of thousands of dollars, based on the size of the store, the point-sale integration, staff training and cellular network quality, Hogben says. Stores also pay a monthly service fee between $1,000 and $5,000 for technical support and customer service. Retailers can also choose a technology-only plan that is cheaper than the normal price, Hogben says.