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Kroger checkout

There’s nothing worse than finding yourself in the slowest-moving checkout lane at the grocery store – except, perhaps, finding yourself in the lane that’s moving so fast that you end up feeling hurried and harried. How about a compromise?

Heavy couponers – and those who hate being in line behind heavy couponers – have often semi-seriously suggested having a checkout lane reserved just for them. And what about shoppers who hold up the line by paying with a check? What about older or disabled people who don’t necessarily want to be rushed out the door?

One proponent of slower checkouts at Kroger has taken her idea directly to the top.

Kroger recently held its annual shareholders’ meeting, during which CEO Rodney McMullen welcomed questions from anyone and everyone who owns a stake in the company, large or small. Many questions came from activists, who peppered the CEO with queries about the treatment of farm workers, the company’s hiring practices and the quality of ingredients used in Kroger’s food.

And then there was this:

“I’d like to make a suggestion that you have a slow lane or a senior citizen lane in your stores,” one woman said upon approaching the microphone. “Everyone who goes to the grocery store doesn’t have to be in and out in two minutes.” Ignoring some tittering from the crowd, she continued, “I just think senior citizens or sick people need to have cashiers and baggers who aren’t instructed to get people in and out of your store in a set period of time.”

You can debate whether or not a shareholders’ meeting is the proper forum to offer the kind of idea that you’d normally write on a card and stick in a suggestion box. But the idea is actually not so far-fetched. Because at least one store has actually done it.

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A few years ago, the Finnish grocery store K-citymarket introduced a “slow lane”, designed for the elderly, disabled or anyone who just didn’t want to be rushed. So it would be perfect for check-writers, couponers and shoppers who just like to chat up their cashiers.

That’s pretty much the opposite of what Kroger, and virtually the entire grocery industry, has been doing. Kroger has been using customer-sensing technology to reduce average wait times at checkouts from four minutes, to under 30 seconds. And Walmart recently revealed that it’s testing out new Digimarc bar code technology, which imprints dozens of invisible bar codes all over a product’s packaging, so it can be scanned any which way without having to search for a lone, hidden bar code. “It’s amazing how fast you can scan when you don’t have to hunt for the UPC code,” Digimarc executives have said.

But all of this focus on speed can lead to scanning mistakes, and unhappy customers who simply don’t want to be rushed.

So what does Kroger’s CEO plan to do about it? McMullen called the shareholder’s query “one of the harder questions to answer”. “We’re always trying to balance the speed of the checkout and making sure the customers understand how important you are,” he said. “Your point is a great one, and I can tell you we really haven’t had discussions about what would be a way to help a customer when they want to be a little slower in line, and it’s a great suggestion. I’m not exactly sure how to execute it, but I really appreciate the feedback.”

And then it was on to more questions about farm labor and the retailer’s supply chain.

So the slow-lane proponent managed to get her audience with the CEO, but it’s unclear whether her idea will get anywhere. Still, she probably stands a better chance of success than the couponer who addressed McMullen a few questions later.

“I love the coupons that are directed to me,” the shareholder said of the personalized store coupons that Kroger mails to its customers. “But sometimes they don’t scan well at the register, and I didn’t know if you could work on your databases.”

We’ll follow up on that, McMullen promised. In the meantime, for those who want a more leisurely checkout experience, there’s bound to be a store nearby with twenty checkout lanes and only one of them open, that would more than happily accommodate them.

Photo by Clexow

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