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Next at the grocery store: Single lines, cashierless tech, more delivery

Plexiglass partitions, tape on the floor and one-way aisles.

Anyone who has visited a supermarket in recent weeks is well aware of various safeguards in place aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

But what comes next as more shoppers venture from home as stay-at-home mandates ease?

Next-gen tools include a single, separate line for checking out, ramped up home delivery and even cashierless shopping options.

Smart & Final is creating a digital queuing system it plans to have installed in all of its stores by Memorial Day. Here’s how it works:

  • In lieu of each cashier having individual lines, customers will now queue up in a single line toward the front of the store.
  • A digital screen at the front of the line will tell customers where and when a new register is available.
  • A swing gate will create a barrier where the line will start, and shoppers will wait until the monitor and flashing lights call them forward.
  • The digital screen will also display other messages, including reminders about social distancing guidelines.

A $500,000 queuing system

The Los Angeles-based supermarket chain, which operates more than 250 grocery and foodservice stores under the Smart & Final and Smart & Final Express banners, spent $500,000 on the queuing system, and employees have been installing the various components themselves. Company CEO Dave Hirz said the process is pretty simple.

“On average, it takes about 45 minutes to put up the monitor and install a push button at   every checkstand so the lights blink,” he said. “It comes to about $2,000 a store.”

Smart & Final experimented with one-way aisles. But the company found it wasn’t working because customers weren’t paying attention. But the single-line queuing? Hirz said that’s working well.

“Having the decals on the floor to keep people six feet apart makes customers feel safe,” he said. “But when you have a separate line for each checkstand, you have customers coming by doing their shopping, so you still have people on top of each other.”

People endure crowds and long lines while shopping at Vons in Chatsworth, Friday, March 13, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Albertsons Cos.

Albertsons Cos., which operates Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions supermarkets, has also implemented social distancing protocols across all of its more than 2,200 stores.

That includes designated waiting points at floor markers positioned throughout the stores — particularly at checkstands and stations where people are most apt to gather, such as the service deli, bakery and pharmacy areas.

“Our stores are following the guidance from the CDC with regard to regular hand washing and enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols,” company President & CEO Vivek Sankaran said in a statement. “We have seen our customers begin to implement social distancing on their own with our ‘two carts apart’ reminders as they shop our stores.”

Where the industry is headed

Most of the safety precautions supermarkets have in place will likely disappear once COVID-19 is no longer a threat, and Andy Radlow has some thoughts on where things are headed.

Radlow is the chief business officer for Grabango, which uses artificial intelligence and other technologies to build checkout-free systems for grocery stores.

“The pandemic has shown that shoppers continue to dislike waiting in lines,” he said. “A recent Forrester study noted that 77 percent of U.S. shoppers cited checkout speed as a primary pain point when it came to in-store grocery shopping.”

Radlow figures the technologies his company and others provide to speed the process will be increasingly embraced by shoppers.

“Another realization that occurred during the pandemic is the growing popularity of contactless payments,” he said. “With the rise in contactless payment options, there may be a rise in cashless shopping.”

Amazon Go stores are a prime example. The company’s Just Walk Out technology detects when products are taken from or returned to shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart.

When customers are done shopping, they simply leave the store. They later receive a receipt with the items charged to their Amazon account. No lines, no checkout.

Radlow said Grabango’s technology isn’t aimed at eliminating the human element of shopping.

“In our vision, cashiers remain a part of the in-store shopping experience, even if they’re not scanning or bagging items,” he said. “Our CEO Will Glaser wisely said it this way: ‘We are not making a cashierless store. We are making a lineless store.’ ”

Home delivery

Home delivery is also gaining traction, according to Hirz.

“Last year we launched our own software for online shopping,” he said. “You can partner with anyone to deliver it, and we’ve chosen Shipt. But we partnered with Instacart in 2015, so we still do more of our home delivery through them.”

Smart & Final’s online sales have more than doubled since March, Hirz said, and the company’s overall sales are up by double digits from a year ago as consumers spend more money on food at home.

Invesp reports that digital grocery sales in U.S. are estimated to reach $59.5 billion by 2023, up from $23.9 billion in 2018. Moreover, 48% of U.S. grocery shoppers currently purchase at least some of their groceries online.

But for the time being, supermarkets continue to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19.

“This is my 49th year in the business and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hirz said. “The industry is dramatically different than it was a few months ago.”

Source: Orange County Register

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