Supermarket takes on 'trolley rage' in battle for business

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Supermarkets are hoping to put the brakes on "trolley rage" by implementing technology that cuts down on queues at checkouts.

Asda has successfully tested software which forecasts when customers will arrive at the tills to pay for their purchases. As a result long delays can be anticipated and prevented.

The technology is becoming the latest weapon in the fierce supermarket wars which have already seen aggressive price- cutting and consumer offers.

Asda has been using a new computer system at its Roehampton branch, in south-west London, made by the American company Fastlane. It monitors shoppers by a hidden sensor as they come into the store. The data is then relayed to the customer services desk giving managers up to 15 minutes' notice of when and how many tills to open at a time.

The computer works out the average shopping time, which takes into account how busy the individual store is at different stages of the week and forecasts when customers will arrive at the tills to pay for their purchases. So whereas a Monday-morning shop could take 20 minutes, on Friday evening it might be judged to last an hour.

Asda says trials at the branch have been so effective at cutting waiting times that the system is to be introduced at other stores. Queuing at the checkout is still said to be the number one customer gripe and supermarkets have vied to reduce the frustration of waiting in line.

Incidents of "trolley rage" began to be reported last year when uptight shoppers began fighting as they queued to pay for their goods. In one case, a man required 27 stitches after a violent argument at a supermarket in Nottingham. And in another instance, a man was jailed for 28 days after he admitted slapping a woman shopper in a Safeway store.

Asda is not the only supermarket to make pioneering use of technology. Safeway has introduced a self-scanning shopping system into 24 stores since March last year and hopes to double this by April 1997.

Customers use a hand-held machine to scan in their purchases themselves by using the bar codes. Bills are settled at the end of the shop - based on the data stored by the scanner, meaning that customers do not have to unpack and repack their shopping. "It's like pay and go shopping," said a spokeswoman for Safeway.

She added that security was guaranteed because random checks were constantly done.

Both Sainsbury and Tesco said they remained committed to opening more checkouts when queues lengthened. Tesco was the first to introduce the "one in front" policy - that there should never be more than two people queuing at a checkout - in October 1994. Sainsbury said it had introduced a computer system over the last three months which monitored trolleys and baskets rather than people, and Tesco confirmed it was looking at a similar system. "You could get six people coming through the doors but it might be a mum, dad and four children. We feel that tracking by trolley would be more accurate," said a spokesman.