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4/2/2014
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Kroger Solves Top Customer Issue: Long Lines

The supermarket chain, No. 3 in the InformationWeek Elite 100 ranking, uses QueVision system to ensure customers never have more than one person ahead of them.

What bugs people the most about grocery shopping? It's not the in-store Muzak or the occasional squished loaf of bread. It's the dreaded wait at the checkout line, according to Kroger customer surveys, prompting the supermarket chain to test a variety of technical solutions over the years. Kroger thinks it finally has the right mix of technology: QueVision, which combines infrared sensors over store doors and cash registers, predictive analytics, and real-time data feeds from point-of-sale systems.

From the moment customers walk through the door of a Kroger store, the QueVision technology works toward one goal: ensuring that they never have more than one person ahead of them in the checkout line. The technology, now deployed at more than 2,300 Kroger stores across 31 states, has cut the average wait time from more than four minutes to less than 30 seconds, the company says.

Kroger was doing data analytics simulations on the queuing problem as far back as 2007. "We asked a question: If we could open up a lane exactly when we needed it, what would happen?" says Doug Meiser, operations research manager. "We just wanted to ask the question from an analytics standpoint. And we found we could dramatically improve customer satisfaction." From there, he says, it became a matter of "the math is sound; how do we go do this?"

[For more InformationWeek Elite 100 coverage and a complete listing of the top 100 companies click here.]

Sensors, meet analytics.
Brett Bonner, senior director of R&D at Kroger, says the key business metric is higher customer satisfaction levels. "We weren't interested in cutting [employee] hours," he says. "We were interested in a better shopping experience." Customer loyalty is especially key in the low-margin grocery business. (Kroger, with 2013 sales of $98.4 billion, operates throughout much of the US under various store names, including Ralph's and Harris Teeter.) "At the heart of loyalty is analytics," Bonner says. "We actually have a very long history with that."

Meiser's team did the discrete-event analysis, using a front-end simulator developed with Visual Thinking International. That simulator let the Kroger team adjust inputs such as store layout, staffing levels for cashiers and baggers, and historical transaction logs -- because factors such as time of day and time of month affect how people shop. Kroger's R&D group then partnered with Irisys, a maker of appliances and infrared sensors, to count customers entering the store and at checkout lanes.

Kroger's QueVision system includes a display that keeps customers and store staff informed about how checkout lines are moving.
Kroger's QueVision system includes a display that keeps customers and
store staff informed about how checkout lines are moving.

The Kroger team combined its analytics-based forecasting tools and a tweaked version of the Irisys appliance to calculate the magic number of registers needed -- in real time and looking ahead 15 and 30 minutes.

Kroger already had custom reporting software (well-liked by managers because it was easy to use) that broke down key metrics by district and store, with the goal of "three mouse clicks to the store you're looking for," Meiser says. That software became the reporting back end for the new data on checkout wait times.

Kroger's R&D team began rolling out QueVision in select stores in 2010. Its retail operations team and store managers drove the project and enhanced it. "We had to install an enterprise system in a way that was seamless to the shopper," Bonner says. "That was a huge challenge. We spent about 18 months learning to do that. You just can't inflict an R&D system on a store."

The R&D team's original idea was to notify employees and managers of the wait-time data via handhelds. But a store manager's suggestion to

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Laurianne McLaughlin currently serves as InformationWeek.com's Editor-in-Chief, overseeing daily online editorial operations. Prior to joining InformationWeek in May, 2011, she was managing editor at CIO.com. Her writing and editing work has won multiple ASBPE (American ... View Full Bio

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ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
4/4/2014 | 4:16:36 PM
Re: Postive results for everyone
Visibility of the data matters here -- displaying it puts pressure on employees to take action. This isn't just an alert that goes to the store manager's smartphone. Management guru Jim Collins calls this "information that can't be ignored"
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
4/2/2014 | 12:30:48 PM
Postive results for everyone
Supermarkets have long been the king of consumer data and trends. Shopper loyalty programs are key to their success. It's nice to see someone taking that data and using it with the goal of helping the consumer have a better experience, rather than just trying to sell more.
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