BLOOM: STORE OF THE FUTURE?

Is Bloom the U.S. version of Metro Group's Future Store?Metro Group, the retailing giant based in Dusseldorf, Germany, unveiled a supermarket in nearby Rheinberg last year replete with more in-store technology under one roof than ever before seen in retailing: an "intelligent" produce scale, personal shopping assistant, a variety of kiosks, electronic shelf labels, self-scanning, and applications

Is Bloom the U.S. version of Metro Group's Future Store?

Metro Group, the retailing giant based in Dusseldorf, Germany, unveiled a supermarket in nearby Rheinberg last year replete with more in-store technology under one roof than ever before seen in retailing: an "intelligent" produce scale, personal shopping assistant, a variety of kiosks, electronic shelf labels, self-scanning, and applications of RFID, among other things.

On May 26, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., opened a 38,000-square-foot, new-concept store dubbed Bloom, a Food Lion Market, on the outskirts of Charlotte, N.C., that also has more technology than most U.S. supermarkets.

It's the first of five Bloom stores opening in the Charlotte area this year, and is the only one built from the ground up. The second store will debut Aug. 18; the rest by mid-October, as part of a remodeling program Food Lion is conducting in the Charlotte market.

Yet Bloom's approach, while emphasizing technology, is different from that of the Future Store. For one thing, Food Lion is not trying to put every cutting-edge application under the sun in Bloom, just a handful of systems designed to support the store's core philosophy of hassle-free shopping. At Bloom, it's all about making the shopper's life as easy as possible, and technology is simply a means to that end.

Thus, Bloom features Personal Scanners, handheld devices that shoppers can use to scan products as they shop, keeping a running tally of their purchases. By scanning their items with the Personal Scanner and bagging them along the way, all shoppers need to do at the checkout is pay.

As they make their way through the store, shoppers who need to locate a product can do so by using any of eight customer touchscreen information stations. Typing in "toothpicks" on the screen (provided by Copient, a division of NCR), for example, creates a map with the item's location. Products can be price-scanned as well for those shoppers not using a personal scanner.

Shoppers in the wine section who may not be versed in the complexities of wine vintages and other beverages have access to an information-packed touchscreen kiosk. In the meat section, another kiosk generates recipes for meats whose bar codes are scanned.

At checkout, self-checkout lanes are available along with conventional checkouts. Each lane is also equipped with a wireless, handheld scanner that shoppers can use to scan heavy bags of dog food without removing them from the shopping cart. The Copient screens are used as scrolling receipt monitors. There is a mobile register at the entrance to the store -- it can be located anywhere, even outside -- where shoppers can quickly check out items from the store's Table Top convenience section.

"No U.S. supermarket has this combination of technology all together," said Susie McIntosh-Hinson, Bloom's concept creator of information technology.

"This store takes us into the future."

Focus on Convenience

Bloom, whose slogan is "thought for food," was indeed the product of a great deal of planning over a two-year period leading up to the May opening. Six Food Lion executives, each with a particular specialty, have devoted themselves to Bloom, with McIntosh-Hinson leading the technology side.

Once the Bloom group decided the store would be primarily about convenience for the shopper -- based in large part on discussions with Food Lion shoppers -- they examined how technology could "bring that to life," McIntosh-Hinson told SN at the store last month. "We wanted to ease the hassles when they shop and check out. When they come in, people need help with specific questions: Where do I find it? What's for dinner? What do I do with this [product]?"

Food Lion made a strategic decision to leave loyalty cards -- offered in all Food Lion stores -- out of Bloom, at least at the beginning. Loyalty cards were viewed as possibly not jiving with Bloom's convenience mantra. "If it's something the customer wants, we'll give it to them," McIntosh-Hinson said. "There's only one chance to do it differently."

The early reaction to Bloom's technology, according to a 24-person consumer focus group held seven weeks after the grand opening, was "very positive," she said. However, Food Lion is approaching everything at Bloom cautiously and with an open mind.

"When we open the other four [Bloom] stores, we'll get a better read on what's positive and what's not," noted Terry Morgan, Food Lion's chief information officer and senior vice president of information technology.

Food Lion is also in the process of looking at the shopping patterns displayed by a 600-member customer panel consisting of Food Lion loyalty card holders who agreed to scan their card at Bloom during shopping trips in return for free gift cards. Bloom will compare shopping behavior at Bloom with that at Food Lion, examining basket size, shopping frequency and other factors.

Shoppers queried by SN at Bloom had varied reactions to the technology. Discussing the Personal Scanner, one shopper said he found it easy to use and liked to track what he spent. Another said she loved the device: "It's so convenient. My grandchildren fight over using it." However, one shopper said she didn't use the device because "I don't want to do the work that the store should be doing."

Shoppers in Control

Probably the most progressive system at Bloom is the Personal Scanner, the shopper's handheld scanning device, provided by Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y. The device, while rare in the United States (Albertsons is testing it in the Dallas and Chicago markets) is widely used by European food retailers, including Food Lion's parent company, Delhaize Group, Brussels, Belgium.

As shoppers enter the store, a bank of 48 Personal Scanners is one of the first things they encounter. To secure one of the devices, shoppers must enroll with the store, providing basic personal information that includes a driver's license number. They receive a bar-code identification sticker, which they can attach to a key chain or cell phone. Scanning the bar code at the scanner bank makes one of the devices available for use.

Scanning any bar-coded item in the store registers the item in the scanner display along with an adjusted bill total. To delete an item, shoppers press a "minus" key and re-scan the item. A Mettler-Toledo scale in the produce section enables Personal Scanner users to weigh their produce and generate a bar code that can be scanned. Bagging along the way expedites the checkout process.

To check out, shoppers scan an "end-of-trip" bar code on the shopping cart or in the checkout area. The scanner display prompts them to either pay for their purchases at any checkout, including self-checkout, or proceed to the "checkout review station" for an audit. At the checkout, they scan their bar-code ID and pay. Information is conducted wirelessly via an in-store Cisco radio frequency network.

Shoppers are asked to set aside items that don't scan so they can be scanned at the checkout. Age-restricted items prompt an ID check at the checkout.

The Personal Shopper also allows shoppers to be alerted by the pharmacy when their prescription is ready. Food Lion is looking at giving the deli a similar capability.

In the first two months of operation, about 20% of sales at Bloom have been processed through the Personal Scanner system, said Morgan. Moreover, added McIntosh-Hinson, the average basket size for Personal Scanner orders, about $40, has been about double that of orders not processed with the scanner. "It's a successful start," she said.

Though other U.S. chains, such as Food Lion's sister company, Hannaford Bros., have tested the Personal Scanner device and found a lack of consumer acceptance, McIntosh-Hinson believes that Bloom's experience will be different. "Today, with cell phones everywhere, people are more comfortable with it than they were five years ago," she said.

Shoppers also seem to enjoy the control they gain by using the device, McIntosh-Hinson said. "They like to bag it their way." Moreover, by monitoring the purchase total as they shop, budget-conscious consumers are more apt to spend to their limit than they would without knowing the total until checking out.

Hannaford's problems with the device, she added, had more to do with the audit process, which is used on occasion to ensure that shoppers scanned the products in their basket. Items, generally higher-ticket ones, are selectively checked. "The audit process has evolved," she noted. The audits are done "with respect for their dignity." As with traditional self-checkout, "people are pretty honest" with the Personal Scanner, added Morgan.

The Personal Scanner has other potential uses that have yet to be tapped at Bloom. For example, it is possible to target shoppers via the display with tailored promotional offers. "We've been careful not to do too much too quickly" with technology, noted McIntosh-Hinson.