Mobile grocery shopping app

Don’t stop to shop: the promises and pitfalls of grocery technology

Depending on your point of view, grocery shopping can either be a pleasure or a pain, but love it or hate it, it’s something almost all of us have to deal with on a regular basis. And as grocery stores introduce new technology to make shopping more efficient and convenient, nearly everyone experiences the impact—for better or worse.

I happen to love grocery shopping. I still fondly remember getting pre-shopping jitters as a kid. I’d eagerly scramble into the car with my dad on a weekend, fantasizing about the sky-high aisles packed with color and goodies. Grocery shopping was one of the few times I’d have some quality time with my dad in our rowdy family of five. My dad did all the grocery shopping for our family. (According to him, my mother got this privilege revoked when she came home from the grocery store with a receipt that included a $50 Boston Celtics jacket but no recollection of how it got there, and worse—no Celtics jacket.)

As I’ve grown up and had to take responsibility for my own grocery shopping, I’ve proudly maintained some degree of weird love for this mundane chore. So I never understood how polarizing the topic of grocery stores was until recently.

Not everyone has the time, patience, desire, or sheer will to brave the grocery store. For them, a variety of grocery technology solutions promise to make busy lives easier:

  • Home delivery services like Peapod and Instacart will bring groceries right to your kitchen.
  • If you’re willing to make the trek to the store but want to speed things up and bag as you go, in-store handheld scanners are a popular solution.
  • Or, if you’re looking for a lighter commitment, the self-checkout option exists as a tempting, and relatively universal alternative to a human cashier.

But as with most technology, the reality of the experience can be a bit different than the happy-path vision.

Home grocery delivery: convenience vs. control

home grocery delivery serviceThe resistance to a home grocery delivery service is an obvious one that’s not too hard to understand. “I want to feel my avocados,” is the objection I’ve voiced to my sister, who swears by Stop and Shop’s Peapod delivery service and often tries to convert me. She works full time and simultaneously runs a business with multiple employees, leaving minimal time for anything else. “I have limited time, so I choose to spend that time doing things I want… not things I hate,” she explains. For her, the convenience of having groceries delivered to her apartment will always outweigh the small issues, such as the occasional expired milk or missing bunch of bananas, that can come with this type of service.

This simply wouldn’t work for me. One of my hobbies is trying out new recipes. I often spend my long commute pouring over new possibilities for my crockpot or fancy desserts to try for an upcoming occasion. The thought of missing an essential ingredient severely diminishes the value that online grocery shopping brings to the table.

On the flip side, an online interface for gathering groceries has its benefits. For example, it can solve real user experience issues that exist in a physical store. When you can’t find something on our shopping list, you may frantically pace each aisle, trying to decode the signs to surmise whether the missing piece will be there or not.  Or, if you simply don’t have the energy to hunt for an item, you may justify living without it. On a website, you don’t have to make that choice because all you do is type in a keyword and wait for your search results to load.

An online interface also makes it easy to repurchase a haul with one click by saving and then reloading your basket on your next visit. Or, you might see a recipe and just add the ingredients to your cart in one step.

Arguably, the biggest benefit to using an online interface to shop is the ability to easily identify savings. In the store, products are spread out in their respective aisles, categorized and labeled with tags that identify relevant deals. But there isn’t one place to peruse all discounted items, and from personal experience, there’s certainly no guarantee that store associates have correctly marked everything down. On a website, you can just click “Weekly Specials” or “Clearance” to pull all the latest mark-downs, making it super easy to take home (or deliver) the deals.

Handheld scanners come up short

Another recent advance in grocery technology is the handheld scanner system. While you still have to show up to the grocery store, you can track and bag as you shop, expediting checkout. It also helps you get deals immediately since the hardware is connected to the store database, which houses all of the products you scan as well as related coupons and deals. Instead of scanning everything and then submitting coupons, the savings come off on the spot.

Stop and Shop’s “Scan It!” scanners are very popular in the store near me, but through a combination of online reviews, informal interviews, and my own test, I quickly uncovered some glaring UX issues.

The first is the learning curve. While it may seem like a simple step to just scan and bag items as you go, it actually takes a bit of mind training and adds a cognitive load that you might not expect. I tried this myself one day and noticed that I kept wanting to move through the store faster than I actually could. I needed to stop to weigh all of my produce (which I never do) or was easily distracted by the scanner making loud “CHACHING!” noises indicating sales nearby.

My normal flow was totally disrupted, and at the end of it all I still had to wait in the long checkout line. I also hit the jackpot when I reached the checkout and a clerk proceeded to scan a handful of random items from my carefully packed bags to ensure I wasn’t thieving any groceries. All in all, I felt it took me longer to shop—and just as long to check out. Did I mention that I had packed my bags with thoughtful precision only to have them rummaged through?

A common complaint about the handheld scanner hardware is that it runs out of charge or can malfunction unexpectedly. As one Yelp reviewer notes, “On a busy day, there either are not enough scanners available or they don’t recharge fast enough between uses. Stop and Shop needs to have more on hand for the busy weekend day.”

Another way to solve the problem? Remove the dependence on the store-provided hardware and turn the scanner into a piece of downloadable software: the Scan It mobile app. With the Scan It app, you can use your very own smartphone to read bar codes as you shop. Of course, this only works with reliable internet connectivity, something your average grocery store often lacks.

Self-checkout: more trouble than it’s worth?

Weighing produce at self-checkoutThe first and most ubiquitous alternative technology to the human checkout experience, self checkout, was invented in 1992 and continues to grow in popularity at a rate of 25% each year. Self-checkout is pervasive in the marketplace. You see them in convenience stores and supermarkets across the world. I even used a self-checkout after a flight back from Canada recently where the automated passport-control kiosk read my passport and customs declarations to expedite entry back into the U.S.

Businesses can save on labor since one attendant can man multiple lanes at once, while shoppers can win by avoiding human interaction and capitalizing on potentially shorter lines. I’ve found from personal experience that self-checkout can be quick and painless, but when something goes wrong (as it so often does) it can also be a maddening and even embarrassing experience.

The biggest issue with the self-checkout method is the poor usability of the user interface.

If anyone in the self-checkout line has produce in their basket, I’m going to avoid that line. If haven’t experienced it, the self-checkout interface requires you to locate your item in a list, which is categorized alphabetically, and then place that item on the scale to weigh it. Once the weight is accepted, you can move it to the conveyer belt and continue on.

This sounds simple, but I’ve seen it go horribly wrong. For example, I once helped an elderly woman who just couldn’t understand how to use self-checkout. I had asked her a question like, “What kinds of apples are these?” to make sure I was selecting the right type and she looked back at me like I had four heads and was speaking in Latin.

The Stop and Shop near me has the most infuriating UI that I’ve seen so far. The items are not only categorized alphabetically, but the alphabet is grouped into tabs so you have to constantly perform the alphabet in your head to figure out which tab to select. Okay, Orange…. Not “A through G”… not “H through M”… “N”, “O”… “N through R”! Orange… Page 1… Okra, Onion (red), Onion (sweet), Onion (yellow)… Next Page… Page 2… Orange! Orange (blood), Orange (jumbo), Orange (large)… You get the idea.

With all other advances in technology, how have we not solved this? It’s a user interface— where is a search bar when you need it? There’s an app that can tell you what an object is by taking a picture of it. Can’t we integrate this here? Imagine the machine recognizing the item just by taking a snapshot of it. If my phone can tell the difference between a maple leaf and a aosei leaf, I see no reason why my local grocery can’t identify the type of apple it’s selling me.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve scanned an item and placed it on the conveyer belt, only to have the machine mock me audibly by repeating, “Place item on the conveyer belt.” The item is there; the scale just didn’t register it properly. Cue the embarrassing flashing light that signals an irritated attendant to come to your rescue—and their judgmental huffing and puffing as they press some magic button to release you. All the while, you can feel the people behind you in line re-evaluating their lane choice as you try to recover and hope your actions don’t require clerk intervention again.

The self-checkout really only works from a shopper perspective if you’re a seasoned expert in the tricky interface and odd quirks. And most people simply aren’t—especially when there are so many different types of machines. In theory, a clerk should be able to staff multiple lanes easily, but in reality, they just can’t keep up with the constant stream of issues caused by confused patrons or malfunctioning technology.

This is why some stores are phasing out self-checkout. They recognize the stress they put on their staff to monitor multiple lanes isn’t paying off, and the effort to decrease theft isn’t necessarily working. Big Y Foods Inc., which has 60 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, began removing all of its self-service lanes in 2011 after finding that customers appreciated a friendly cashier, and employees complained that self-checkout machines were confusing and actually created more work. Some CVS pharmacies are following suit, and I would predict more to follow.

There’s no magic technology that’s going to work for everyone when it comes to grocery shopping. As humans, it’s in our nature to have unique needs and expectations, different from the person next to us or behind us in line. There will always be fundamentally different user needs and, therefore, different solutions—that’s the beauty of the evolving field of technology and human-centered design.

What’s next for grocery technology?

Companies will fight it out to innovate grocery delivery, like Uber’s UberEssentials and Amazon’s Prime Fresh. Retailers and app creators will continue to develop smarter hardware and faster software in an attempt to expedite shopping and checkout. But no matter what technology the grocery landscape throws at shoppers, one thing is clear: User experience needs to be the main focus.

It doesn’t matter if all of the grocery store products are in the database of the scanner if the scanner needs internet connectivity and the store is enclosed by thick concrete walls that make the task impossible. It’s irrelevant if you’ve tracked all your purchases on an app only to wait in the same line as everyone else and then have to unpack some of your bags. What good is self-checkout if you need constant assistance to complete it? It’s questions like these that new solutions need to focus on if they’re going to be successful. Until then, I’ll continue to happily examine each and every bunch of grapes to select which ones I’ll be taking home with me.

How about you? Do you love grocery shopping or hate it? Do the new grocery technology options make your life easier or just add more complexity to a necessary chore? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!