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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Hands-Off at the Grocery Store

The coronavirus is pushing contactless technology forward, changing how many consumers shop for groceries — and who touches them. 

Everybody needs groceries, but we want to be able to get in and out of the store quickly. And increasingly, we’d prefer to avoid contact with anyone else, including cashiers. The coronavirus is pushing us to change the way we shop. Smart technology has been at the supermarket for a few years, but there is more adoption by customers these days. 

Contactless Payment Is on the Rise

Retailers across the product spectrum have noted an uptick in the use of contactless payment systems, including Apple Pay. Grocery purveyors Publix, Kroger and Walmart are promoting proprietary systems that avoid touch. And according to a survey conducted by Mastercard, slightly more than half of Americans are using a form of contactless payment such as tap cards that don’t have to be inserted into a machine to make payment. 

Mobile Tech

Consumers are notoriously resistant to changing their habits. That’s why using a smartphone to scan our own groceries as we toss them in the buggy has lagged, even though warehouses like Sam’s Club has had the tech in place since before COVID-19 arrived. Company execs say use of the Scan & Go app has quadrupled in recent months, as consumers seek to avoid germs and complete shopping more quickly. Meanwhile, King Sooper’s parent company, Kroger, is beefing up its Scan, Bag, Go platform. And Wegman’s has moved up the release date for its new SCAN service and plans to roll it out to more locations than originally planned. Finally, Associated Wholesale Grocers has begun to introduce scan-and-go systems at its retail warehouse stores.

The technology didn’t start off with a bang. Retailers and consumers alike gave it a lukewarm reception at its debut. In response, Kroger has let its program sit without updates for more than two years (although that’s changing now), and behemoth Walmart put the nix on its Scan & Go system back in 2018, saying it wasn’t getting much use. Shoppers thought scanning every item felt like additional work, especially those getting a big load of products. Then COVID-19 hit.

Mobile systems allow shoppers to hit the trifecta of less contact with checkout counters/clerks, less time spent indoors with other people, and more quickly completing a burdensome chore. 

Smart Carts

Cashing in on a market that is projected to grow to over $3 billion a year by 2025, Amazon has introduced a smart shopping cart to improve on the customer experience by avoiding the checkout line. Shoppers needing just a bag or two of groceries can enter the company’s Woodland Hills, California location and grab a Dash Cart. Though it looks like an ordinary small, plastic grocery cart with a display near the handle, it uses integrated cameras, sensors and a scale to automatically keep track of what customers are putting in and how much each item costs. 

“We built this predominantly as an alternative to things like express checkout, where you still end up waiting in line, or fumbling with self-checkout machines,” said Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president of physical retail and technology. “The experience will be designed to be seamless, very convenient, very easy for customers to understand.”

Customers scan their Amazon app to get a Dash Cart, then load it with up to two bags’ worth of groceries. Produce has to be weighed and the 4- or 5-digit identifying number entered. The cart “knows” if something is removed and put back on a shelf. When customers are done, they exit through a special Dash Cart lane, where the credit card associated with each consumer’s account is automatically charged. 


Retailers outside of the grocery space are eyeing the carts, but there are some caveats. Highest on the list may be cost: a traditional buggy runs about $70, while smart carts set a store budget back in the neighborhood of $5,000 apiece, before maintenance. The consumer also hasn’t yet adopted this new technology, which traditionally has a lag time before it takes off. Finally, there’s the issue of information gathering. If I buy Crafty Canine dog food this week, will I get ads for Dodgy Dog Biscuits the next? It’s possible “in theory” according to Kumar, but “the focus of the cart is to be able to generate accurate receipts and make sure that we save customers time.”

The focus may also be looking at cost, in spite of that hefty price tag. The human beings who check out customers often earn pensions, 401(k) matches, sick time, vacation pay and the like. Over time, the cost of the carts will likely go down as they are widely adopted by retailers. Checkout clerks may eventually go the way of switchboard operators.

Still, a bevy of companies are vying to put their carts in American stores. Israel-based Tracxpoint started shipping its product to North America over the summer, touting a 15-minute reduction in time spent shopping when its carts are used. Veeve is another player in the smart cart space, with pilots at two grocers and ongoing talks with a pair of other retailers. 

As the pandemic subsides, will the habits of consumers have changed enough to continue to push smart cart technology forward? Only time will tell, but it’s more likely than not that large retailers will embrace this new way of shopping and consumers will become used to the carts. Can the day be far on the horizon when you toss a bag of cookies in the cart and it talks back, asking if you really want those empty calories?

Click below for the other articles in the December 2020 Senior Spirit


Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors