Shelf-service at Safeway

A Safeway trial allows shoppers to scan their purchases – a system that has found favour on the Continent. But could it ever take off here?

SBHD: A Safeway trial allows shoppers to scan their purchases – a system that has found favour on the Continent. But could it ever take off here?

Less than two months after Safeway became the first UK supermarket chain to experiment with self-scanning, it has announced a fivefold increase in the number of shoppers taking part in the trial.

Although the company is understandably cautious about committing itself to a full national programme of automated shopping, the results, it says, have so far been more than encouraging.

Retail analysts estimate Safeway’s plans to introduce automated shopping to 60 stores by the end of the year could be running ahead of schedule. Although many retailers fear that self-scanning could be little more than a shoplifter’s plaything, loss of stock has not been a problem.

Safeway has been monitoring a large automated trial in Holland by supermarket group Albert Heijn – owned by Ahold, in which Safeway has a three per cent shareholding. The company claims the system is so immune to theft that where mistakes do occur, they tend to be made in favour of the store, not the shopper.

It seems therefore the hiccups that may afflict Safeway’s test at its Solihull site – a place chosen less for its love of hi-tech retailing than for its location in the middle of the country – are less likely to be caused by light fingered shoppers than by excessive honesty.

“There has been no increase in shrinkage in the store,” says a Safeway spokesman, “which vindicates our view that self-scanning can only work if the store and its consumers agree to trust each other.

“However, what has been found in the Dutch self-scanning trial is that customers are so keen to prove themselves to be honest that they accidentally end up paying for some things twice, being too diligent with the scanner.”

The key lies in shopper selection. The Safeway test does not invite anyone off the street and let them loose in a shop full of goodies with no one to scan them.

The original 100 – now extended to 500 shoppers chosen to scan their own shopping as it drops in the trolley are already registered with Safeway’s ABC customer reward card and their identities and addresses are known.

Although there is no final check on shoppers before they leave the store – no comparison of the number of goods scanned with the number of goods in the trolley, for example – Safeway says that random checks are made to ensure that the system “is working properly”.

The self-scanning procedure – named Portable Personal Shopping by its inventor Symbol Technologies – is itself straightforward.

Loyalty customers use their cards to unlock the hand-held scanner from a dispenser in the store and then scan each product before putting it in the specially designed shopping box, housed in a trolley, that can later be loaded straight into the car.

If they change their minds about an item, the scanner can delete the product.

The scanner keeps a running total of the bill as they go up and down the aisles and, and linked to the store’s main computer, it allows shoppers to check individual prices and any available data about a product.

After completing their shopping, customers return the scanner, a receipt is printed and goods are paid for at a custom-made express checkout. No queues and, because of the custom-made trolleys and boxes, no unpacking and repacking.

Whereas few people have so far had any trouble with the technology involved in self-scanning, there are those who dislike the idea of doing the work of a checkout operator.

Some are concerned that DIY scanning will lead to redundancies among shop workers, an issue that is already alarming members of the 200,000-strong shopworkers union Usdaw. Others simply see self-scanning as a burden on shoppers, citing the bother of the procedure and the worry that they might steal something by accident.

But I note that very few have complained that they are denied the human interaction of traditional checkouts. Critics and a few Luddites have made much of the contention that self-scanning dehumanises the shopping process and say that the “social” side of shopping will be irrevocably altered by the self-scanning revolution.

Safeway disagrees. “We don’t believe that self-scanning causes problems for people who prefer the human touch,” says a spokesperson. “After all, there are plenty of assistants and managers around, just like any other store – but we recognise that some people simply don’t like being in control of their own scanning.”

The store stresses that automated shopping is at an early stage of development, and is designed as an option for some customers, not as an alternative to standard checkouts.

In Solihull for example, only one on eight checkouts are designed for automated shopping, while the rest have checkout staff.

Products such as delicatessen items can continue to be weighed by an assistant, before they are scanned by the customer, and Safeway has simplified fresh produce purchase.

With the introduction of Continental-style weighing scales – the ones with cute little pictures of radishes or haricots verts that weigh the items and spit out a stickly price label – self-scanners and traditional shoppers alike can see precisely what they are expected to pay before they get to the checkout.

On the Continent, shoppers are already acclimatised to dealing with automated processes. As a spokesman at Ahold says: “If you trust the customer they reward you by being extremely accurate.”

The system pioneered at the Albert Heijn store in Geidermalsen is being extended both to the company’s 500 other Dutch stores and also to a retail chain it owns in the US.

And in the US itself, where self-scanning trials are already well-advanced, the technology is more sophisticated.

In one test, the need for a hand-held scanner is avoided by the use of an “intelligent” trolley that is itself capable of scanning each item.

In another, each product is given a tiny microchip so that it can in effect scan itself – a system that some say could cost 70 pence per item.

Although Safeway’s scanning technology supplier, Symbol Technologies, also sells equipment to Tesco, Boots and Savacentre, so far Safeway is the only UK retailer to be pioneering a trial of automated shopping.

Not for long, perhaps.