2010.27 | Queue Busting at POS

I’ve had various queries as of late around queue busting.   The general concern I’ve heard from local Canadian retailers is particularly around stores with small footprints that experience much higher traffic during a tourist season.  There may only be 2-3 lanes in some rural / small town sites, which are unable to handle the load over the busy summer months.  The people in those stores are looking for relief in the ability to handle more customers, but there is little or no additional space for additional point of sale or staff.

Queue busting is a valid option.  Traditionally queue busting has meant the use of a (relatively) small handheld device by a store staffer to scan all of the items in a customer’s basket, suspend the transaction, and the customer would then pay the regular cashier as they followed through the queue.  The idea is that using these handheld scanning devices would shorten the time spent by customers at the point of sale.  Let’s consider potential issues that need to be addressed by such a solution in a grocery environment:

  • Basket size – A queue busting solution could work well in a small basket size situation – say up to 8 items at the very most.  Unless there is special bagging area established in front of the register, and items are placed into bags, there is a high probability of items being missed, or scanned twice, which will hamper throughput and lower customer satisfaction.  A handheld solution is probably cumbersome for sites that have larger basket sizes, or queues other than an express lane.
  • Scanning Power – Wireless handheld scanners that are connected to the back end do not scan easily.  The technology has certainly improved over the years, but has not come close to the ability of bioptic scanners or even handheld units connected to a POS for speed.  There is greater effort required to orient the products to ensure a correct scan.  This will slow the queue a bit, but may be a valid tradeoff over waiting in line reading the tabloids.
  • Weighed Items – If a customer has produce that needs to be weighed to calculate the price, they cannot be accommodated by a handheld device.
  • Receipts – Need to ensure the handheld can print a receipt.
  • Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS)–  If a customer has an item like a pharmacy item or an item from the meat counter, there is no way to deactivate the security tags with the handheld unit.
  • Coupons – In Canada, most coupons are not scannable, and need to be entered manually.  This would be cumberson on a handheld device which is primarily a scanner and not a data entry platform, and could p0tentially require integration into the POS platform beyond the standard scan and suspend requirement of a queue busting platform.  Coupons are not used as much in Canada, so this may not be a fundamental problem.
  • Loyalty – Customers will expect that they can use their loyalty card can be scanned as normal, and this should be accommodated as normal.  It shouldn’t be a problem with the handheld.
  • Queueing– It is important to consider the operational aspects of a queue busting solution.  Will the attendant have an extra basket or cart to which they move unscanned items into after they are scanned?  This will require additional space.  Customers are accustomed to queuing in certain ways in stores, and any adjustments will have to be simple and made clear to the current clientele to avoid impact on the current queueing structure. 
  • Shrink – If a store associate scans items and then passes the customer on to the clerk accepting payment, it will be important to watch customers to ensure that items are not added to the basket or swapped out after the scan. 
  • Tender Time and Throughput– Consider that tendering is the longest component of any transaction.  Now consider that every tender must be handled by the person in each lane with the most powerful scanner and flexibility on the POS.  The fastest scanners would not be used on every transaction – only some of them.  Will this really speed the queues?

I would suggest that a few other options are likely to provide a better outcome by simplifying the process, and eliminating some of the issues presented above:

  1. Full Function Handheld POS – A number of devices are now available that can scan as well as accept payment.  For a smaller retailer, an iPhone touch or iPhone could be used, though EMV is an issue.  For larger retailers, this Motorola unit has an option for an EMV payment device to clip on to the handheld to accept payments directly on the device.  The user can even flip the unit towards the user without having to let go of the device.  Using payment directly on the unit can avoid shrink problems between the scan and payment, and avoids users having to go to a second queue.  Weighed items and EAS are still an issue.
  2. Small Footprint POS – POS manufacturers such as the one I work for generally have smaller footprint hardware platforms.  There is the potential to place a complete POS platform on a power cart to add additional lanes in the store in a very small footprint.  This would eliminate the weighed item and EAS issues, and could simplify queues, but does require a bit more space.
  3. Small Footprint Selfcheckout – Self-checkout platforms are getting smaller, particularly those that accept debit and credit payments only.  Give the high usage and adoption of electronic payment in Canada, a small selfcheckout unit could provide 3-4 checkouts in place of one.  With a bit more space, full payment options are an option as well.

2010.09 | Electronic Shelf Labels


Changing prices of products on a continuous basis is a necessity in a retail environment, and is particularly time consuming in a grocery environment with thousands of different items stocked on the shelves, and thousands of potential price savings every week.  Canadian retailers also have a code of practice where retailers pay reparation to consumers in the case of mislabeled items, so retailers have a tremendous incentive to ensure that prices are up to date and synchronized with the in store database.

Given the hours of labour involved in keeping all of these prices up to date and accurate, it’s not surprising that retailers and vendors alike look to technology in an attempt to reduce the burden of labour and cost. 

Electronic Shelf Labels (ESLs) are one of the solutions that have come in and out of favour over the past decade or so.  Given the continuous reduction in the cost of electronic components and computing power, re-visiting the potential of ESLs today is a credible exercise.

In order to assess the potential value, let’s consider a few points around the potential value of this technology in a retail environment.

Reduction in Store Labour – Using an electronic system avoids the necessity of store staff walking the aisles and changing the labels on store shelves.  Retailers I’ve dealt with have the labels sent to the store from a central location, and walk the aisles to change the labels – I know some have 1-2 people doing this for 1-2 days per week.  Assuming the system is working correctly, a very significant labour effort is removed from the store.  A very large potential savings to be sure, but the entire effort is not removed from the mix, as displays are changed often, and the product to be displayed on the label must still be changed. 

Accuracy – Assuming the price database in the store is accurate, the potential exists for improvements in price accuracy, as the necessity of placing labels on shelves each week is removed.  Assuming that no changes are made to the store layout, the potential for error is reduced.  The reality is that in many environments, displays, end caps, and various shelf planograms change relatively often as products are added and removed from a store database.  While the tag can be directly linked to the price database at the back end of the store, the tag can be moved in front of the incorrect product, or the battery could die, leaving no display at all.  In order for this solution to operate correctly, it is very important that the processes are carefully established, and that the tags provide for two-way communication, to ensure that the tag can communicate back to dashboard in the back office indicating that the pricing that shows in the database matches the price on the tag for a certain UPC.  In implementing a system such as this, it will also be important to ensure operational systems are in place to ensure someone takes a sober second look at pricing.   While placing labels can be time intensive, it also provides a sober second look that may not occur via an electronic refresh.  It may seem obvious to someone placing a label on a shelf that grapes should be $10.99 and not $1.09, but the system may not notice.

Time Sensitive Offers – One of the potential benefits of using these tags is being able to provide time sensitive pricing.  Special pricing can be available during certain days or hours of the week.  While technically this is possible, it can bring about some unforeseen logistical challenges in a retail environment – particularly grocery.  Imagine that a customer picks up an item identified at a price of $1.99 at 10.45 am, and the price changes to $2.99 at 11.00 am.  The customer checks out at 11.15 am.  Instead of being charged an expected $1.99, they will be charged $2.99.  Even if we get by the law that says tags have to match the price displayed, the customers are likely to respond badly, and store staff are left in an awkward position which will discourage them from using such pricing schemes.

Sustainability – Everyone is doing their best to reduce their environmental footprint in today’s world.  The potential of ESLs is to remove the ongoing replacement of paper labels throughout the store, which is very positive.  The upside of this remains to be seen however, given the thousands of electronic devices (tags) that would need to be put in place in a retail environment.   Each of these has a battery and electronic components that are more difficult to recycle than the paper tags currently used, and it may also use more electricity as a whole.  While this would have to be assessed individually, it would seem that paper has the leg up here, though all of the printing that takes place may offset this.

Initial and Ongoing Costs – One of the greatest challenges of these implementations is the cost.  Many of them are not obvious until an on-site testing scenario takes place.  While the cost of tags has inevitably decreased over the years, given improvements in battery technology and economies of scale, there is still a significant startup cost with thousands of tags required at the outset.  There will also be an effort to get all of the tags programmed with the correct UPCs, and the installation costs, which may also require changes to shelving and tag mounts in the stores.  There is also the cost and effort of validating that all tags are working with the wireless network, and interfacing with the program to validate prices correctly required at every store.      From an ongoing perspective, the costs appear very low at first glance, but it is important to consider that there will be replacement costs for tags that are stolen or damaged, or just quit working.  The percentage of failed tags can vary, and technology has improved the life and durability of the tags, but the reality of the retail environment is such that a percentage of tags will need to be replaced every year.  These costs will have to be carefully compared to the cost of current practices.

Technical Issues – Once again, wireless and display technology have improved from a technical and cost perspective since these systems were first released, but problems can still occur.  Dead spots in the store may exist if wireless coverage is not wide enough, allowing updates to be missed by some tags and at least requiring intervention from store staff.  Tags that are placed in challenging environmental conditions such as freezers will be more expensive or fail more often, requiring staff attention.  While tags can now be much larger, it is likely that not all signage will be replaced by the digital solution, meaning staff will have to manage two platforms.  Extra tags will need to be kept on site to accommodate failed tags.  If there is a failure of the wireless system, or the software program to update the tags, the tags will be frozen at one price, and not updatable.  All of these issues can be overcome, but require processes, and costs to be considered.

I’ve seen fewer of these solutions in recent years than in the past, but perhaps ESL’s will be revived with updated technology.  In the interim, I wouldn’t be surprised to see other potential solutions considered.  Why not a handheld unit with a portable printer that provides a list of UPCs to be changed?  The user walks the store in order, scans the UPC in question to show they are there, and a tag is printed on the spot. 

Every retail environment is different, and while technically the solution is feasible, like any technical solution, there are quite a number of logistical and operational issues that need to be overcome.  There is certainly opportunity for savings.

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