VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Overwaitea Food Group here has opened a highly automated new store that some observers are calling the most technologically advanced format in North America.
Relying on such advanced retail technologies as customer self-scanning checkout lanes and electronic shelf tags, the retailer seeks to offer low prices and operate the store with as few employees as possible.
The 28,000-square-foot Smart! Market store opened in a working-class neighborhood here July 3 in a former IGA store.
"This is a big idea. This is absolutely unique," said Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill. "Don't forget, other people have dabbled in these technologies, but these guys have gone 100% -- 100% on self-scanning and 100% on electronic shelf labels."
Currently, five employees operate the front end, accepting payment after shoppers have scanned and bagged their own purchases -- or lending assistance, if needed. There are no conventional checklanes and the retailer aims to reduce the front-end staff to three employees, according to another source, who requested anonymity.
"You've heard about 'the store of the future,' but here's a company that's just decided to bite the bullet and do it," the source added.
A spokesman at Overwaitea Food Group confirmed reports that the company was considering franchising the Smart! Market store concept, but declined comment on specifics of the store's format, citing "strategic reasons." However, the primary automated components within the store include:
Self-scanning checkout lanes: All six checkstands allow shoppers to do their own scanning of products before proceeding to a cashier stationed at a separate counter.
The checkout lanes feature a color computer monitor that prompts shoppers through the process and displays item prices. Shoppers can use the touch-screen device to verify prices before making a purchase, check a subtotal or delete an item that they've scanned but have decided not to purchase.
"[Overwaitea] would regard it as a limited-assortment store, but it's different than what we would call limited-assortment," Bishop said. "It really does have produce representing all of the major areas; there's also meat, dairy, frozen."
As purchases travel down the checkstand's conveyor belt and pass under security arches, each item is cross-referenced with its universal product code to ensure the UPC matches up with the designated weight, height and dimension of a particular product, a source explained.
Product movement information drawn from the point of sale is communicated daily to direct-store-delivery vendors for next-day replenishment.
Electronic shelf labels: Plastic shelf tags with liquid crystal display readouts are installed throughout the store -- including refrigerated and produce areas -- and allow the retailer to adjust pricing electronically.
In a flier distributed to shoppers, Overwaitea calls the shelf-tag system "your window to the mainframe computer" because it reflects the same pricing information contained in the POS system. Conventional paper shelf labels, by contrast, don't always reflect the same information loaded into the scanning system because of human error and the time-consuming nature of manually updating paper labels.
The electronic shelf labeling system is manufactured by Electronic Retail Systems International, Wilton, Conn.
Customer flow monitors: Electronic gates installed at the entrance monitor shopper traffic and alert the store manager to changing staff needs.
Advanced POS software: Competitive pricing information from a nearby Safeway store is collected and loaded into Smart! Market's IBM front-end system weekly; printed shopper receipts display total savings calculated based on comparable purchases.
The store's own "Smart! Price," an itemized list of purchases, is printed alongside a column titled "Safeway Price," which shows the competitor's price for comparable items, when available. Customer receipts indicate the Safeway location and date from which prices were drawn.