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Smith's offers electronic checkers

Time-pressed consumers have long been able to quickly pump their own gas and fetch money from ATMs.

Now they can scan, bag and pay for groceries themselves before scooting out the door of the newest Smith's Food & Drug Center.The 68,000-square-foot store at 980 E. Fort Union Blvd. features U-Scan Express. Each of the four check-out stands has a bar-code scanner, a touch-screen computer with voice instructions, scales and bill-and-coin "acceptors" for people who want to slip their money into special slots and get moving.

The express lanes are designed for people buying 15 items or less.

"We're proud to be the first store in Utah to offer this," said Marsha Gilford, assistant vice president of public affairs. "Today's busy shopper makes many trips to the store and buys many perishable items."

Gilford said surveys by the Food Marketing Institute show that 93 percent of shoppers decide which store to patronize based on the speed of the check-out lines.

One clerk will oversee a separate stand to accept checks, gift certificates or food stamps, handle coupons, give advice if customers encounter problems and watch for any misbehavior.

The system has safeguards against switching an expensive item after scanning something that costs less. It also calls for identification and refers a customer to the clerk if he or she is trying to buy something like beer.

But customers probably will do most of their check-out work themselves. A touch-activated screen produces a pleasant female voice speaking either English or Spanish that leads the customer through the process.

The system's interactive characteristics are part of what makes it appealing to customers, said Abel Porter, Smith's president and chief executive.

"The big thing we want to do is add value to the shopping experience," Porter said.

He also said no one will lose a job because of the four automated express lanes. In fact, the new store has 11 regular check-out lanes, compared to 10 in most stores.

The store also has several new services and products to attract customers:

A fish department that will do such things as bake a salmon for customers while they shop.

A meat department that features beef products with cooking instructions.

A gourmet dessert section featuring items like creme brule, chocolate mousse cake, fruit tarts and huge chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Small coolers stationed in aisles so chilled tortillas are positioned near shelves of bottled salsa and chilled mozzarella cheese is near packages of dry pasta.

A natural foods section, staffed by an employee and featuring a touch-activated computer, that offers electronic or printed information about such items as organic foods, recycled paper products and homeopathic remedies.

A larger than usual "home meal replacement" counter with already cooked foods or dishes that have been prepared but just need to be cooked, such as a stuffed whole chicken.

Carole Throssell, director of media relations for the Food Marketing Institute, said self check-out efforts are slowly catching on. "They're still fairly new. Some stores are experimenting with self check-out, and we're seeing about 5 percent of stores doing that now. It's in response to customer desire to get in and out of the store quickly and have some control over their shopping."

Throssell said the FMI's research shows that customers stand in check-out lines an average of eight minutes. "If they can cut down on that time by checking themselves out, the stores that meet that demand are going to get those customers."

Far more prevalent are the home meal replacement products and services, Throssell said.

"We're seeing more and more of this in upscale gourmet stores," she said. "Consumers are telling us in all our research that they have little time, they have money and they're willing to spend the money to save time in preparing the meals.