Scan-as-you-shop wands debut here

Eldersburg supermarket adopts technology that lets shoppers bag as they go down the aisle

February 08, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

Susan White selected a hand-held scanner from a console, readied both a paper and plastic bag in her shopping cart and placed her 4-year-old daughter in beside them.

White's daughter, Tasha, scanned four cans of chicken and liver cat food for her mom. Traveling over to the refrigerated section, White then waved the wand over two cartons of orange juice.

She was out of the supermarket in less than 15 minutes, after checking herself out.

"I wish every store had this," said White, 39, who recently moved to Sykesville from Baltimore. "This has made my shopping more efficient. As I see my bags getting full, it makes me think about what I'm buying, rather than just piling stuff into the cart."

When a new Martin's Food Market opened in southern Carroll County, it became one of the first grocery stores in Maryland to use hand-held scanners, allowing customers to total their items and bag them while they shop.

Giant Food Stores of Carlisle, Pa. - a chain that includes 143 Giant and Martin's supermarkets in four states - uses personal scanners at only one store in Maryland, the one in Eldersburg, according to company spokeswoman Tracy Pawelski.

None of Maryland's 77 Safeway or 118 Giant supermarkets employ the technology, company spokespersons said.

"It's very new," said Joe Reed, manager of the Martin's that opened in Eldersburg in late August. "We just started rolling them out last year and planned to open up with as much of the new technology as we could."

While hand-held scanners may become more prevalent at large, publicly held chains trying to cut labor costs, smaller private companies - such as Wegmans - place more of a premium on hiring quality staff, according to David J. Livingston, a supermarket industry consultant in Pewaukee, Wis.

"It's still experimental at this point," Livingston said. "Some of this new technology is designed to replace inept employees. If having a hand-held scanner or going through a self-service checkout is a more positive experience for the customer than encountering an employee of the store, then it's probably a good idea to roll this out more."

Here's how the technology works: Customers swipe their store bonus card at the console and then a registered scanner wand lights up for use. Beside the scanners, racks of paper and plastic bags allow the shoppers to bag as they go.

As the bar code of each item is scanned, a new subtotal appears on the wand's small calculator screen. The system allows for fresh produce to be scanned.

After selecting their groceries, the shoppers swipe their wands and bonus cards at a sensor to download their total at a self-checkout station, scan in any coupons and choose their method of payment.

Though Martin's is a 24-hour store, the scanners are only available during peak hours, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The 76,700-square-foot Martin's store is peppered with ATM-like "Shopping Solutions" kiosks to help customers locate specific products.

No more wandering the aisles aimlessly. You tap the touch-screen in the produce section and a store map appears.

Where's the organic peanut butter? A red star indicates the spread is in the natural/organic section, Aisle 2.

At the kiosks, shoppers also can place deli, bakery and pharmacy orders, and print out recipes and coupons tailored to their personal tastes.

The new technology has not threatened jobs at the store, but rather created positions, Reed and Pawelski said.

The new Martin's has three times the staff of the store it replaced in Eldersburg, Reed said.

There are about 250 more associates, he said, including in-house dietitians and child-care workers to staff an elaborate playroom where parents can leave their children for up to 90 minutes while they shop.

Most supermarkets see the new technology as too cost-prohibitive to adopt, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of the trade magazine Food World in Columbia.

"Generally the supermarket industry is a bit slow to embrace some of the technology available," Metzger said. "The time span between availability and unveiling, testing and practical application is a long one."

In Maryland, two new Food Lion-owned Bloom markets in Scaggsville and Rockville use the hand-held scanners, and five other upscale Bloom stores in Maryland are wired for the technology, according to company spokeswoman Karen Peterson.

In New England, some 16 Stop & Shop grocery stores use IBM-designed personal scanners and wireless tablet monitors attached to shopping carts, said Peter M. Hamilton, a company spokesman.

The Kroger Co., of Cincinnati, which operates nearly 2,500 supermarkets nationwide, recently tapped International Business Machines Corp. to equip its stores with new technology, including personal scanners, IBM spokesman Michael Rowinski said.

To prevent shoplifting, Martin's randomly audits several customers every day to ensure their bagged items match their receipts, Reed said. Audited customers receive a $2 store coupon for their time.

"It's intended to curb any dishonesty," Reed said.

On weekday mornings, most customers appear to frequent Martin's regular checkout lanes. But on Saturdays, when Martin's is at its busiest, customers often have all of the store's nearly 60 hand-held scanners checked out, Reed said.

Many shoppers will use self-service for a quick trip, but depend on cashier service for full loads.

Still, some senior citizens appeared more wary of the new gadgets.

Betty May, a retired teacher from Winfield, said she has no use for the fancy scanners. She will sometimes go through the self-checkout stations at Wal-Mart. But she said she enjoys grocery shopping at a leisurely pace.

"I haven't noticed people of my generation using them," said May, 72, who recently perused the Martin's aisles with her husband, Tom, 73. "I don't like the idea of it. I'm allergic to technology of any kind."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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