Supermarket retailers see the future of electronic scaling, and, not surprisingly, it includes “smart scales.”
Smart scales are Windows PC-based or open-platform units that can make self-service weighing and labeling effortless for shoppers. (“Open platform” refers to a free or open operating system that makes it possible for users to create or modify software content themselves.)
Some smart scales are coming to market with optical recognition technology that can tell the difference between, say, a Red Delicious and a Fuji apple, and can even differentiate the more expensive varieties of organic apples.
One large regional chain, preferring to remain anonymous but well recognized for its innovative approach to retail technology, has been buying only Bizerba Windows CE-based scales for almost three years. The chain plans to initiate the first test in the U.S. of Bizerba's Windows CE-based Optical Recognition self-service smart scale in the produce department.
In Germany, A.G. Metro in 2005 was the first to deploy the optical recognition smart scale technology in the produce department of its “future store.” The technology is currently in about 80 Metro supermarkets.
After customers place an item on the optical recognition smart scale, the camera zooms in, and by scanning the color, structure, shape and size of the item, the scale recognizes it and prints the appropriate pricing label, said Horst Meister, product manager for retail scales at Piscataway, N.J.-based Bizerba USA.
“A smart scale is a very sophisticated piece of equipment,” said Meister. ”Everything is done from the host server on Metro's network. If a customer brings up an SKU, the system can download appropriate content such as recipes, cooking instructions or nutritional information. From the host server, Metro can also change prices, information content, images and advertising. They also can upgrade the operating system, service and troubleshoot the scales remotely.”
In Europe, retailers use smart self-service scales that run on an operating system such as Windows XP, Windows CE or an open platform to entertain and inform customers. Supermarkets, including A.G. Metro in Europe, run videos on the touchscreens of Windows CE-based scales that show consumers how to cook or prepare the items they are buying. Windows or open-platform-based scales can also display and print out recipes, cooking instructions or nutritional information.
Retailers could potentially run commercials on the touchscreens of smart scales, and they may even generate incremental revenues from manufacturers who would pay to have their commercials played on the display screens.
This spring, for the first time, a leading U.S.-based regional supermarket chain will launch a two-store test of a Bizerba Windows CE-based smart scale that will display, on its touchscreen, an informational video that will show customers how to prepare salad items placed on the scale.
Although more commonly used in Europe, smart scales have been making their way into the U.S. in chains as diverse as H.E. Butt Grocery and its Central Market stores, Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores, Tops Markets, A&P's Food Emporium, Giant Eagle, Lunds, Byerly's, Bashas', Wegmans Food Markets, Food Lion's Bloom division and several Supervalu banners, including Sunflower Market.
Smart wireless self-service scales “are a huge advantage to us,” said Christine Connelly, spokeswoman for H-E-B's Central Market. “When customers get to the front checkouts, they make the checkout process much quicker, and they make checking out easier and faster for our cashiers as well. So there is a cost- and time-savings benefit.
“Over 90% of our customers use the scales, and the word we're hearing is that they love them,” she said. “From Day One, our customers have embraced them.” The scales, made by Bizerba, are in Central Market's bulk food and fresh produce departments.
Central Market uses touchpads with its scales, but it just started testing a touchscreen in one store, which Connelly said “is going very well.” The retailer also found it's “a huge advantage” to be able to download software upgrades to the scales without having to send technicians to its eight stores, she said.
She couldn't estimate how long it takes for Central Market to get a return on its investment, but “we put them in all new stores as we open them. The technology has become part of our standard procedure.”
One national supermarket chain, which requested anonymity, has installed Mettler Toledo's wireless open-platform smart scales in all its stores. The software, running on the chain's network, is easily integrated with other systems, such as point-of-sale.
“The retailer takes a scale out of the box, plugs it into a network, and in 25 minutes has a deli scale running on the same network platform as their point-of-sale systems,” said Mike Hughes, an account manager for Columbus, Ohio-based Mettler Toledo.
While most of the scales are found in the produce and bulk/natural food departments, some chains use the technology throughout their stores.
Supervalu's Sunflower Markets, for example, installed six to eight smart scales from Mettler Toledo throughout its four stores, including the bakery, produce and bulk/natural food departments.
However, while smart scales are perceived to be the next big innovation in service and self-service scale technology, they are not seen as appropriate for all U.S. supermarkets.
For one thing, each scale costs — depending on volume discounts — about $1,000 more than traditional electronic scales.
Because of the added expense, the self-service scales “are probably best suited for stores that appeal to customers looking for an easy and convenient way to buy produce and bulk food items and who have the time to weigh and price those items in the aisles as they shop,” said Rich Savner, spokesman for Carteret, N.J.-based Pathmark Stores.
The same customers also might enjoy videos that can run on the touchscreens, he said, or they might find information that can be printed out on their receipt useful — such as recipes.
“Right now this appeal has a finite niche,” Savner said. “We use Hobart scales in service and self-service areas of the store, and they perform very well for us. But this might be a technology we would roll out in the future if we can determine that it would both benefit the consumer and be cost-efficient.”
Likewise, a spokesman for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, which is testing smart self-service scales in five stores, made a similar point. “We are currently piloting the technology, so we are not in a position to discuss the potential benefits and setbacks of the smart scales just yet,” said spokesman Dan Donovan. “We are still evaluating ROI.”
Troy, Ohio-based Hobart does not currently offer a line of smart scales, but Richard Cartwright, the company's vice president/general manager of retail systems, said the company is exploring a number of innovations that it could bring to smart scale technology.
“It's an important market,” said Cartwright. “It's real, and we will bring new technologies to the market. But while adding Windows to a scale brings value from the customer's perspective, retailers have to look at the total package and determine which technologies — Windows CE or XP or some other system still to emerge — will get them the desired return on their investment as well as add value for the customer.”