Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Grocery stores turn to hand-held personal scanners for shoppers

Unions decry technology

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
The handheld scanner keeps a total of purchases and speeds up checkout lines, say grocery officials.
The newest weapon in the highly competitive supermarket wars may be the handheld personal scanner for shoppers.

Among the grocers that have introduced them is Bloom at its Rockville and Scaggsville stores.

The scanners make ‘‘shopping a breeze,” say company officials, saving customers time from long checkout lines.

But officials with the union representing grocery workers say the scanners are the industry’s latest tactic to put cashiers out of work.

When they enter a store, Bloom shoppers can swipe their ‘‘Shopping Is a Breeze” card to release a scanner from a dispensing display. The customers use it to read barcodes on items as they select them; shoppers then bag the items in the shopping cart.

A small screen on the scanner displays each item’s price and keeps a running total. When finished, the customer only scans a paper ticket and pays at a self-checkout machine or a cashier.

Bloom’s parent company, Food Lion LLC of Salisbury, N.C., a division of Delhaize Group of Belgium, recently converted 40 of its stores in the Washington, D.C., region to Bloom stores. Blooms in Gaithersburg, Frederick and elsewhere in the region are wired for the personal scanners, but don’t yet offer them, said Food Lion spokeswoman Karen Peterson.

Bloom has also introduced the scanners at 13 stores in Virginia, five in North Carolina and seven in South Carolina.

Bloom isn’t alone. Some Ahold USA grocery stores are introducing the scanners, too. Ahold, itself a division of Royal Ahold of the Netherlands, is the parent of Giant Food LLC of Landover, the top grocer in the Washington region, but those stores aren’t due to have them. Another Ahold subsidiary, Giant Food Stores LLC of Carlisle, Pa., is introducing the devices.

Eleven of the Pennsylvania division’s 140 Giant and Martin’s Food Markets stores have the scanners, said spokeswoman Tracy Pawelski.

The scanners are designed to speed the checkout process, reduce lines and make the shopping experience more enjoyable, said Food Lion’s Peterson.

So far, the system has had no apparent impact on revenues or profits, said Gene Wilson, manager of Bloom’s Rockville store.

Giant’s Pawelski would not comment on the scanners’ benefits to the company, saying they are to benefit the customer.

The scanners in Bloom are also a key ingredient in the store’s electronic or portable shopping system, which features six information kiosks around each store.

At the kiosks, shoppers use a touch screen to find 2,500 recipes, nutritional information, what wines match well with different foods and even children’s games. Shoppers can also upload a grocery list they have created from their home computer.

‘‘We don’t like self-checkout scanners because they put cashiers out of work,” said Irene DiBattesta, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents grocery workers. The handheld scanners ‘‘would be more of the same.”

‘‘Union shops” don’t have the self-checkout scanners and would not likely offer the personal scanners, DiBattesta said.

Giant Food of Landover, which has unionized stores, is looking at the technology and will make a decision later, said spokesman Jamie Miller.

Whole Foods Market, whose workers are not unionized, has ‘‘looked into it,” said spokeswoman Kate Lowery. ‘‘We are still looking at new innovative technology, though, because we are a very experimental company and always looking for new improvements.”

Bloom’s scanners cost about $1,000 each, said Frank Riso, a senior marketing director for Motorola, which provides the devices to Bloom, J.C. Penney and other retailers through its Symbol Technologies subsidiary. The software is from Agilysis of Boca Raton, Fla.

Each of the Bloom and Giant stores with the devices has 24 scanners.

Wilson said the number of customers using the scanners can’t be quantified.

Colette Crooks, a ‘‘taste ambassador” at Bloom in Rockville, said she thought fewer than 10 percent of shoppers use them.

‘‘I see lots of people using them with their kids, who look at it as a game,” Crooks said.

Riso said the scanners are more than a gimmick. One European store offers more than 800 scanners to customers, he said.

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.