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At the cash...gone in 24 seconds!

Technology at Kroger and other stores is shortening lineups

Shoppers don’t like waiting in line. Never have, never will. No wonder grocers are trying to prune them. Take Kroger. The American chain uses the same technology to shorten queues that police use to track fugitives.

Infrared cameras that detect body heat have been installed at Kroger entrances and near cash registers. Software plugged into the cameras calculates the number of lanes needed to keep queues to a minimum.

The system, called QueVision, has reduced the average wait time to 26 seconds, from four minutes.

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“Focusing on checking people out is a great way to enhance store patronage. People are less store loyal and more focused on getting the stuff they need,” says Zel Bianco, CEO of Interactive Edge, a New York data analysis firm.

QueVision, which was developed by Kroger’s IT department, in 2010, is now in almost all Kroger locations. The system predicts how long shoppers spend in the store and determines the number of lanes that need to be open in 30-minute increments.

That information gets displayed on TV monitors above the lanes so supervisors can deploy cashiers accordingly.

Customers can also view the monitors (photo above). A quick glance tells them not only how many lanes are supposed to be open now but how many should be open in a half-hour.

“Nobody likes to wait in line. If we wanted to develop loyalty from our customers, we really had to respect their time and improve the checkout experience,” says Marnette Perry, senior VP of operations at Cincinnati-based Kroger.

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Customer satisfaction surveys, Perry said, show a 42% improvement in checkout experience.

Some industry observers argue that liberating shoppers from their forced confinement in line reduces impulse sales. But others counter that making life difficult for shoppers will result in losing them–and their impulse dollars–anyway.

“Kroger is on to something. My bet is consumers will reward Kroger for giving them a break they should have had a generation ago,” says Ryan Mathews, a consumer trends analyst and CEO of Black Monk Consulting in Detroit.

Other retailers are deploying queue-busting systems, too. Last December, Walmart began testing a service in which shoppers scan items as they shop using Walmart’s iPhone app, then pay at a shelf-checkout.

Walmart’s program started at 70 stores and is now in more than 200 locations in 14 markets.

While the notion of self-scanning seems new in North America, it really is a variant of well-established technologies in place among European retailers such as Tesco.

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Like Kroger, Tesco uses heat sensors to detect shoppers as they enter the store. It combines that information with historical data to estimate the flow of carts to the checkout stand. Checkouts are opened or closed accordingly.

Tesco’s executive leadership recently attributed a 10% pre-tax profit surge in part to the sensors. Kroger also singled out its checkout system for a 9.6% hike in first-quarter earnings.

Seems the math on queues isn’t all that complicated: Less waiting adds up to higher profits.

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