Changes happen in one of two ways: small, incremental baby steps, or giant leaps that require equal parts faith and fortitude. The recent launch of the Giant Food store in Camp Hill, Pa., clearly falls in the latter camp.
The 91,200 square-foot facility is laid out from the ground up with an emphasis on self-service. Giant Food Stores partnered with Agilysys Inc., St. Clair Interactive Communications Inc., IBM Corp. and Symbol Technologies on what can surely be called "the grocery store of the future."
"The customer-friendly technology at the Camp Hill Giant store will go beyond the last wave of grocery retail innovations such as self-checkout and standalone kiosks," said Giant president and chief executive officer Tony Schiano in a news release.
The big picture of a big store
Giant's self-service initiative, dubbed "Shopping Solutions," consists of two key components, a multi-application kiosk system and the Personal Shopper System (PSS).
"The design philosophy from a kiosk standpoint was to allow (customers) to access any application from anywhere in the store, as opposed to having to be at the deli kiosk if you want to order from the deli," said Aaron Hagler, director of sales for Agilysys. "It's a real multiple-application system."
Hagler said that developing such a multifaceted system posed some interesting challenges, particularly dealing with existing channels and legacy systems. "We had to take feeds from a lot of different systems," he said. "I think the total of different legacy systems was 14. And we did a lot of feeds from the Web site."
The store ended up with 23 different applications running storewide on 25 IBM Anyplace Kiosks, equipped with Symbol MS 3207 MiniScan scanners. In addition, five large LCD digital signs broadcast marketing materials to users at the kiosk. Some of the applications running on the kiosk system include a product locator from Treo Systems, recipes from ShoptoCook Inc. and health content from Healthnotes Inc. Other applications include bakery ordering, party planning, loyalty and price lookup. Enclosures for the kiosks were designed by Frank Mayer & Associates Inc.
Even more noticeable than the kiosks is the PSS, a battery of 72 Symbol PS3050 handheld mobile devices that are integrated into the store's POS and self-checkout. A customer entering the store scans their loyalty card, then picks up one of the handheld units and begins shopping, scanning items as they place them directly into bags in the cart.
"The idea is that at the point in time that you pick up a product, you scan it with that personal shopper and bag it in the cart," Hagler said. "The next time you're supposed to touch that item is literally when you get home."
Securing the checkout
Eliminating the need to scan products at the checkout will save customers an enormous amount of time, but requires added diligence on the part of the store. In the past, self-checkout has addressed the issue of theft by carefully tallying product weights.
The Agilysys solution, on the other hand, uses spot-checking and dedicated lanes. Customers using the PSS head to a special checkout lane when they're finished shopping, and use the handheld unit to scan an "end-of-trip" on-screen barcode. When this barcode is scanned, the system tallies the contents of the cart and sends the data to the POS. The customer then pays for the order and receives a receipt.
Meanwhile, customer service representatives supervise this checkout area, watching for suspicious activity and performing occasional audits. In the case of an audit, a small handful of items are taken from a customer's cart and re-scanned; the system informs the CSR whether or not the customer in fact scanned those items. Repeat offenders can be easily banned from the system.
According to Hagler, audits occur on a random basis. He said that the store currently does not monitor customers while shopping in the store — there are no "eyes in the sky" — and he is not aware of any plans to implement such a system. The philosophy, he said, is that the random nature of audits will be a sufficient deterrent to theft.
"What a lot of folks tell us is that they've got more shrink going through their regular lanes than they do through self-checkout — through sweethearting, people knowing their cashier," Hagler said. "So it's almost better that people do it themselves, and know that they're subject to audits."
Integrating people, not just machines
The story of the Camp Hill store is not just the story of technology — it's a remarkable example of getting large numbers of parties to come together with a common goal. St. Clair president Doug Peter said for him, this experience was overwhelmingly positive.
"I always preach the gospel when we start on a project that it can't be just one department — it has to be representative of everyone that's going to be involved with the technology," he said. "And we must have had 60 different people in the planning meetings, from all different departments of the company. There are so many different views of what this is doing for the company, and yet they've achieved their goal of having one platform."
Peter, whose company designed the application templates and provided the software infrastructure, said the level of cooperation and cohesion among the partners, as well as between the partners and the client, was unprecedented.
"It was very productive to bring together so many different players who have individual interests but who saw the benefit of achieving an overall platform for the client," he said. "The degree of integration on this project was far more complete than anything I've seen before. We're linked into 14 different Giant back-office systems, and it was quite remarkable."
A bit of uneasiness is always par for the course when introducing new consumer technology, but a spokesperson for Giant Food Stores said that so far, customers seem smitten with the new system.
"The acceptance has been beyond our expectations," said Denny Hopkins, vice president of advertising and public relations for Giant Food Stores. "We had a fairly good idea based on percentages of sales rung up on self-scan. We've had a real good history of that. But when you look at the numbers that are going through all of what we're calling the self-scan checkouts, it's well above our expectations."
He also said that demographics don't appear to be playing a part in acceptance. "There are no age issues — all ages are using them," he said. "I was at the store two days ago and talked to a young lady who was using it, and she said â€˜This is great. This is fabulous. I can't believe how easy this makes my shopping.'"
According to Hopkins, a second store in the Giant system, located near Hershey, Pa., will be getting the self-scan suite later this week. Not all stores will get the full battery of tools installed at Camp Hill, he said, but rather will pull the specific ones that are best suited to their location.
"The Camp Hill store is what we're calling a concept store — it's a test lab," he said. "We're seeing how these various amenities work, how well the customer accept them, then we'll plug and play the features into future stores."
James Bickers is the senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications.