Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Handheld scanners at grocery store will take some getting used to for shoppers

At my local Stop & Shop grocery store in Norwalk, Conn., tonight I finally had a chance to try out the handheld scanners designed to speed the checkout process.
The idea behind the devices is that you save time by not having to unload and reload your groceries in the cart at the checkout lane. You simply scan and bag the items as you shop. It’s the logical next step in self-checkout technology.
I like the idea, but it will take some getting used to.
Stop & Shop, a unit of Dutch grocery giant Ahold, uses Motorola portable scanners with a system developed by Modiv Media of Quincy, Mass. The grocery chain began installing the systems in late 2008.

Here's how it works:
As you enter the store, there’s a self-service kiosk with a rack of handheld scanners. You scan in your shopper loyalty card’s bar code and one cradle blinks, signaling you to remove the unlocked handheld.
The instructions tell you to take some of the plastic or paper bags there to bag your groceries as you go.
How many bags will I need? I thought. This is one of those things that will take some getting used to. I’ve never had to think about that before.
I didn’t want to be wasteful, so I took about four plastic bags. I had a minimal shopping list.
Scanning is easy enough. You point the device at the product’s bar code, press a button and the red laser line reads it. The product, pricing and any store discount information appears on the device’s color screen.
The device gives you a running total of how much you are spending and saving. It also gives you exclusive offers, but I was too busy learning the process to pay much attention to those offers this time.
At one point I fell back into my routine of placing items into the cart without scanning or bagging them. Old habits die hard. I checked my list of items scanned to make sure I had everything scanned, then continued shopping.
Shoppers can remove an item from their shopping cart by rescanning its bar code. But I didn’t have to do that this time.
My next hurdle was how to finish checking out.
The sign at the starting kiosk said I could go to any of the self checkout lanes. I chose one and looked for instructions. Above the register display there was a sign that had an “end-of-order” bar code to record the full shopping trip.
I scanned it and couldn’t figure out what to do next.
I swiped my credit card in the reader and nothing happened.
Eventually a store clerk came over and helped me.
I had to scan my shopper loyalty card again, even though I scanned it at the beginning of the process. Then I scanned my credit card again and was in business.
I was expecting to dock my handheld scanner, swipe my credit card and that was it. Scanning in an “end-of-order” code and re-entering my shopper card seemed like unnecessary steps to me.
The system also didn’t ask me to weigh my groceries like the self-checkout systems usually do. I would think that could lead to theft problems.
But it is a hassle when the self-checkout registers give you scale-related error messages like “Unexpected item in bagging area. Please remove item.”
These handheld scanners are a step towards the ultimate self-checkout experience. That system would simply identify all the items in your basket with RFID or some other technology at checkout. You wouldn’t have to scan your items individually any more.
Now that would be nice.

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