Kroger Loses Some Wait

"The waiting is the hardest part."
- Tom Petty The Heartbreakers

While citing its focus on value and its loyalty program for delivering 35 consecutive quarters of positive identical supermarket sales, Kroger officials also pointed to its success in reducing checkout times.

On its second-quarter conference call, Rodney McMullen, Kroger's president and chief operating officer, noted that checkout wait times have been reduced to an average of approximately 30 seconds. In the past, the average was as long as four minutes. Advertisements have been run across banners touting the ability to save time. Said Mr. McMullen, "Our customers tell us they noticed the difference, and we are delivering a shopping experience that makes them want to return."

Kroger appears to be particularly benefiting from its QueVision system, reportedly rolled out across banners last year. Employing sensors above checkout lanes as well as over the store's entrance and exit, the system tells workers how many checkout lanes should be open immediately as well as how many should open up within 15 or 30 minutes.

An article in the Wall Street Journal late last year explored the many ways stores were seeking to reduce queue time, highlighting Apple's use of hand-held tablets to ring up sales, Home Depot's addition of mobile checkout, and the general increase in self-checkouts. Disney for the first time pre-scanned shoppers in line. Home Depot's cashiers stood in front of registers to indicate they were open.

The article also found that consumers felt less stressed when there was an employee or an electronic screen near the front of the line to direct shoppers to the next open register. Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Uniqlo and Nordstrom Rack employ this strategy.

Such strategies are also designed to reduce the "perception" around wait time. Envirosell, the retail consultancy, found shoppers' estimate of wait times up to three minutes were highly accurate but wide over-estimates resulted after that. Mindful of this, Disney associates last year were trained to entertain customers with Disney trivia to reduce the waiting boredom.

Delving into the "perception" notion, an article last month in the New York Times, "Why Waiting Is Torture," pointed to how an unnamed airline made travelers take a longer route to the baggage carousel to reduce wait complaints. In the retail world, the article noted how "tabloids and packs of gum offer relief from the agony of waiting" in supermarket lines with such impulse items adding $5.5 billion to the industry annually.

While multi-queue setups move shoppers through lines quicker, the article found the "perception of fairness" drove wait irritation. Most fast food shoppers waited much longer in single ordering system lines because it didn't violate the "first-come, first-serve" etiquette.

"The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one's life is slipping away," wrote the author Alex Stone.

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