FINAST IS TESTING PORTABLE SELF-SCANNING

LAKEWOOD, Ohio -- A Finast supermarket here has become the first store in North America to go live with a portable customer self-scanning system.The Maple Heights, Ohio, chain made handheld devices available to a group of 100 shoppers in a test launched this month. Evaluation of the system's effectiveness, shopper acceptance and effect on shrink will continue until January, when Finast will decide

LAKEWOOD, Ohio -- A Finast supermarket here has become the first store in North America to go live with a portable customer self-scanning system.

The Maple Heights, Ohio, chain made handheld devices available to a group of 100 shoppers in a test launched this month. Evaluation of the system's effectiveness, shopper acceptance and effect on shrink will continue until January, when Finast will decide whether to expand the initiative.

The program will serve as a test for all the U.S. chains owned by Finast's parent company, Ahold, Zandaam, the Netherlands. Ahold's other U.S. chains include Bi-Lo, Mauldin, S.C.; Edwards Super Food Stores, Windsor Locks, Conn.; Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., and Mayfair Super Markets, Elizabeth, N.J.

Greg Spragg, Finast's vice president of marketing and operations, demonstrated the technology for national media here last week.

"We would expect that if everything goes successfully and we experience a degree of customer satisfaction -- and the technology is as solid as we believe it is -- then we would expand to additional customers in this store," he said.

"Until we've done that, it's just impossible to say where we might go," he added.

Spragg declined to disclose the system's cost, but a source familiar with the technology said an in-store rack containing 32 handheld scanners would cost less than $150,000, including software that integrates with the store's point-of-sale system.

The portable self-scanning technology is beginning to establish a foothold in Europe, where it's operational in 26 Safeway Stores, Hayes, England, and three of Ahold's Albert Heijn stores in the Netherlands. Safeway is reportedly installing the system in additional stores at a rate of two or three weekly.

At Finast, the portable self-scanning program is expected to heighten customer service by enabling shoppers to get in and out of the store quickly.

"Waiting in the checkout line is the least favorite part of the shopping experience," said Spragg. "This is the start of a complete re-engineering of the checkout process."

During a store demonstration

in this middle-class Cleveland suburb, Spragg showed how shoppers swipe a store-issued card to disengage a portable scanner from a rack containing 32 devices. He said shoppers will scan items before placing them into plastic baskets that nest into the shopping carts.

Should a shopper decide against purchasing an item that was scanned, the shopper depresses a "minus" key to remove the item from the system; depressing the "equals" key displays a running total.

For bulk produce items, which lack bar codes, shoppers weigh the product, key in a price lookup code and receive a pressure sensitive label containing the bar code, which can then be scanned. A graphic display computer system is also available to assist shoppers in identifying products.

At the end of the shopping trip, shoppers return the scanner to the rack, which automatically dispenses a ticket with the order total and a corresponding bar code. Shoppers bypass the conventional checklanes and instead proceed to a special pay station where the bar code is scanned and they pay for their order before lifting the plastic baskets from the cart to take their groceries home.

Use of the portable self-scanners is limited to a select group of shoppers who volunteered for the program and understand they are subject to random audits and may be stopped to have their order checked item by item.

No special training was offered to shoppers, but new users of the system can request a store employee to accompany them and provide assistance as necessary.

Spragg said the 51,000-square-foot store, smaller than Finast's superstore format, was chosen as a test site because of its high customer count and high transaction count.

"We think this is a store that gives us an opportunity to use this technology to really improve our service," Spragg said.

The system, which uses Symbol Technologies' LST 3803 scanning terminal, was developed in partnerships involving Ahold; Symbol, Bohemia, N.Y., and TNO Product Centre, a Dutch engineering firm.

The concept of customer self-scanning is not a new one to the industry. Some supermarkets have tested stationary checkstands where shoppers scan, bag and pay for their groceries.

These front-end systems, installed by Kroger Co., Cincinnati; A&P, Montvale, N.J., and Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., among others, have security features to ensure shoppers stay honest. A combination of light-sensors, ultra-sensitive intelligent scale systems and surveillance cameras is used to protect against losses.

By contrast, the Finast portable self-scanning system relies, in part, on the honor system; shoppers are asked to set aside any items that do not scan properly and alert the cashier upon paying for their order so they may be charged accordingly.

Ahold officials told SN its Albert Heijn stores did not experience greater losses due to theft after installing the system and Finast is likely to aim for similar results.

"If there's no impact [on shrink], then the system works; if shrink goes down, it works great," said one source familiar with the situation. "If it goes up, there's an issue to address."