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VOL. 128 | NO. 94 | Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Grocery Gadgetry

Technology helps Kroger cut customer wait times

By Andy Meek

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Kroger’s Memphis-area shoppers might not have noticed, but the supermarket chain is paying more attention to them these days.

Cashiers check out customers at the Mendenhall Road Kroger store, where infrared cameras are used by the company to  monitor customer traffic.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

The high-tech proof doesn’t necessarily call attention to itself, but that’s not to say it’s not hidden, either. Television screens mounted near the front of its Memphis stores are a product of Kroger making a big investment a few years ago in new infrared camera technology.

The cameras track body heat in the stores. The goal of the technology – called QueVision – is to capture the traffic pattern of shoppers in the stores to get a better handle on what Kroger’s staffing levels should be and how many checkout lanes to open.

To that end, the screens at the front of stores show a set of numbers, including how many checkout lanes are open now and how many will be open in, say, 30 minutes. The data have helped Kroger shave the time customers spend waiting in line, and the technology is available in all of the stores in Kroger’s Memphis-based Delta Division, which operates 115 Kroger grocery stores and 70 fuel centers in five states.

Joe Bell, manager of marketing and public affairs for Kroger’s Delta Division, invites customers to check out the screens themselves to take note of the numbers and watch them change.

“We didn’t do a lot of advertising of this, and it wasn’t necessarily intended to be something directly shown to the consumer,” Bell said. “But the benefits are enormous for our customers. And the capital investment, we think, was worth the time and effort. A lot of people complain about waiting in line and cutbacks in service in today’s world, but Kroger’s kind of gone in the opposite direction.”

On average over the course of a week, Bell said the system has helped cut wait times in checkout lines to around 30 seconds. He stresses that’s an average and that a big order can skew both that average and the perception of that average.

A monitor at the Kroger on Mendenhall Road helps store personnel determine if they should open up another checkout lane, or even if staffing levels need to be adjusted on certain days. 

The system began to be installed in Kroger’s Memphis stores in 2012, and it runs constantly, seven days a week. Its accuracy improves as a store’s history and patterns accumulate over time, helping pinpoint the right number of employees and checkout lanes.

“The key thing here is that Kroger is using technology to draw meaningful business-level data out of their stores,” said Memphis-based technology consultant Bill Piper. “They’re making a strong move toward improving their operations and customer experience.”

QueVision is one of several kinds of technology in which Kroger has invested to improve the customer experience. In Memphis, the company also is making a big investment in the stores themselves.

Kroger’s Delta Division is spending $50 million in 2013 and another $50 million over the next three to five years on upgrades, fixes, renovations and some store replacements in the Memphis area.

That includes Kroger’s recent announcement of its plan to invest $2 million into the Kroger store at 1366 Poplar Ave., at the corner of Poplar and Cleveland Street. The renovations there, which will happen in the first quarter of 2014, will include an expanded pharmacy, new paint inside the store, lowering the ceiling over the produce section, new interior decor, the installation of new refrigeration and frozen cases and a resetting of products on the shelves.

The company also recently opened a new store at Poplar and Highland Street and announced plans to expand its Lakeland store as well as build a new Union Avenue store.

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