Cue the queue killer at checkout counters

Roger Trapp reports on an innovation that pledges to cut delays in supermarkets

THE British love of queues is the stuff of legends, not to mention the butt of a few jokes. But - to judge from the way leading supermarket groups are competing for the best customer service - it is an affair that is waning.

As disgruntled customers of those very retailers who are making the grand claims about queuing times know, there can be a significant gap between the rhetoric and the reality, the theory and the practice.

It is this chasm that a US-based computer installation company called Datatec Industries is aiming to fill.

Having already introduced retailers to a system that sorts buyers from browsers, the company has developed a product that it claims is able to forecast the number of people that will arrive at a particular checkout at any given time.

The New Jersey organisation says the Fastlane software package can "ingeniously predict, up to 15 minutes in advance, how many people will arrive, each minute, at the checkouts".

As a result, store managers can add operators for sudden rushes or - during lulls - reassign them to other tasks.

The package, which is currently being tested by three retail grocery chains, including Somerfield, has been used by such US companies as K- Mart for several years. But Britain is the first country where it has been used in supermarkets.

Joanna Schuller, the general manager of Datatec Industries UK, says this is because supermarkets in the US tend to run on lower margins and are less able to invest in technology. In addition, they have a tradition of employing bag-packers, which helps reduce congestion.

The Fastlane package - the first of an increasingly sophisticated series of software packages that the company intends to introduce in coming years - runs on a PC connected to Datatec's ShopperTrac counting sensors, which record each shopper entering the store.

It retrieves the entry times and - combining this information with statistics on the behaviour of shoppers - calculates the amount of time that each will spend buying, and thus predicts his or her time of arrival at the checkout.

The prediction is largely based on information collected via the electronic point of sale unit. By knowing such statistics as the number of items that an individual typically purchases, Fastlane can work out a minimum and maximum shopping time.

The company says the key advantage this offers is being able to deploy staff "proactively" - before queues start to build up. The traditional method of putting more people on the checkouts once somebody has spotted a build-up is, by contrast, reactive.

At busy times, such as Friday evenings and Saturdays, when all the checkouts are in use, the system can demonstrate that even more aisles are required.

The store obviously cannot build extra lanes, but Ms Schuller says the system will recommend that the store use staff as packers as a way of speeding up service.

"At least they know they need more people." She acknowledges that there may not be spare employees available.

This measure leads to a reduction in dissatisfaction caused by understaffing and in the arguably more important "walkouts" - customers who leave the store without buying, because they are put off by the length of the queues.

At Somerfield, a manpower planning executive, Jerry Marwood, says early signs are that the system is working well at its store in Willesden Green, north London, and the company is planning to test it at another site near Bristol.

Mr Marwood believes that the Datatec approach has advantages over other techniques designed to improve "labour utilisation", because it addresses customer service as well as cost control.

With retailers making bolder promises to their customers about levels of service, it is important that they have the means of making them happen. Datatec seems to be giving managers the "tools, ie, the information" that they require to enable them to deliver on their promises, he adds.

As this suggests, customer service is not the only beneficiary. Happy customers are likely to spread the news of the improved service - and so improve sales. But the system can also boost the store's performance in other ways.

"By minimising their `wait-in-line time', customers' in-store shopping time is maximised," says the company. And more customers buying more items translates, of course, into increased sales.

Finally, although the company obviously points to the advantages of avoiding unpopular under-staffing, the system also enables the store manager - with confidence - to shut down aisles in slow times and avoid "costly overstaffing".

Nor does the system need any involvement of staff. It basically runs itself, and employees require only about 10 minutes' training in its use.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

The benefits of being in Recruitment at SThree...

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

Test Analyst - UAT - Credit Risk

£280 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Test Analyst, Edinburgh, Credit Ris...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Graduate Recruitment Resourcers - Banking Technologies

£18000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Huxley Associates are looking...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform