This Week's Herman Trend Alert

Leadership in Normal 2.0

  The Herman Trend Alert

September 5, 2000

The Future of Supermarketing is Here

114 Days until January 1, 2001

We recently visited our local supermarket and experienced first-hand the future of bricks and mortar supermarketing. In our Trend Alert of March 22, 2000, we said "Smart retailers (would) use technology to fill in the gaps," and "enlightened retailers (would) understand that they are selling more than just merchandise . . . a shopping experience." This new supermarket system exemplified both.

We have seen self check-out systems before, but all had been so frustrating - when the technology did not work. The equipment was abandoned after a short trial period. Our encounters had required so much staff attention, that clerks might as well have been doing the checking out themselves. This time was different.

Once we understood the system, it was actually FUN to check-out ourselves. The system worked very well and even has a safeguard to insure that the shopper is not stealing groceries. (There's a sensitive scale mechanism that weighs the items as they are bagged. Add an item that is not scanned and the machine will request that you "rescan" the item.) We required help at first, but our second visit probably will require no assistance at all.

The only drawback to the current technology is that you are limited to the number of items that will fit on the scale at the same time; they figure about 15. However, since most visits to grocery stores are for fewer than 15 items, the system will work for most patrons.

Because so many people now pay by credit card, most trips to that supermarket will require no help from store staff. What a very clever way of handling the shortage of workers. Look for more advances to address the labor problem (see next week's Trend Alert).

The highlight for us was the check-out experience itself. We were "in control," interacting with the technology, and moving very quickly through the process. Younger people, who readily embrace technology and control, will love it. They will enjoy the experience and be attracted to stores that offer it. For countries with a younger population, like Brazil, this technology could be very popular.

Trend Alert is a weekly electronic trends bulletin produced as a public service by The Herman Group and the Workforce Stability Institute, Greensboro, NC. Trend Alerts are written by Roger Herman and Joyce Gioia, co-authors of LEAN & MEANINGFUL: A New Culture for Corporate America, (390 pages., hardcover, Oakhill Press, 1998) available in bookstores at $27.95. Also available through

Comments from our readers:

I too have used the automated checkouts at supermarkets. They are infuriating. Having to repeatedly scan an item by a disembodied voice using threatening tones takes twice as long as having a paid employee scan my purchases. Also, if you're making a major grocery run and not just getting a few items there's not enough room at the "storage" end of the checkout to keep all of your items. If you remove bags as they fill up, the system malfunctions and makes you start all over.

As for retailers stocking single items on the shelf that you scan and pick up elsewhere - remember Service Merchandise? The idea of waiting in line for my grocery order to be called out so that I can then go wait and pay for it is ridiculous. Think about what Service Merchandise is like at Christmas, and you'll get a pretty good idea of what your local grocery is going to be like on a busy Saturday morning. Improved customer service indeed.

I like Harris Teeter's system, too. Better yet, I like Webvan, a dot-com company that allows you to order groceries over the net and then delivers them to you in a pre-scheduled 30-minute window the next day. Started in San Francisco and now in Atlanta. Plans for 24 more cities. You can visit at Perhaps you already know about this, but I have to believe that this will be popular with time-starved professionals as it catches on.

Lew G. Brown
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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