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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 29, 2013 at 8:08 PM

Seattle app follows self-checkout machines in bid for your groceries

A bank of self-checkout machines await customers at the QFC in University Village.

A bank of self-checkout machines await customers at the QFC in University Village.

Remember when grocery store self-checkout was the future?

The bulky talking machines have been around for more than a decade, and I’ve used them maybe four times. I finally noticed the 12 that are huddled in the University Village QFC when my husband went straight for them a few months ago. On the day of the Fremont Solstice Parade, I found myself lined up behind them at the Fremont PCC. But only because there was no other way with that crowd that I was going to pay for my sandwich in time for the naked bike ride.

There was talk in the early 2000s that self-checkout lanes would soon handle all grocery-store transactions. Now we know better. Everyone likes control and convenience, but some of us (raises hand) don’t want to do more work. Supermarkets like Boise-based Albertsons cut back on self-checkout lanes when it became clear that the machines are an option, not a revolution.

Self-checkout machines have not become “the” future of grocery stores, just a part of it. That’s not to say they’re failing. They’re doing quite well. QFC doesn’t want to release the exact figure, but when you compare the number of customers at its 66 stores who use self-checkout to those who use traditional checkout, the difference is pretty small.

The neighborhood QFC that’s my go-to grocery store doesn’t have self-checkout. If it did, who knows? Maybe I’d prefer them.

With their complex selection, convoluted coupons and broad range of purchase sizes, grocery stores have one of the toughest shopping experiences to crack. Self-checkout did it, with limits. So what, if anything, comes next?

Seattle startup QThru has one idea. And it relies — as you might expect — on your ever-busy smartphone.

Here’s how it works: You walk into a grocery store and start shopping. As you put a new item into your bag or cart, you use the QThru app to scan its bar code with your phone’s camera. When you’ve gathered and scanned all your items, you move toward the exit and scan a QR code at a QThru kiosk, which then prints your receipt. A staffer makes sure the right items are in the cart, and you’re on your way.

Self-scanning, no lines and a platform for stores and vendors to connect with customers. Sounds interesting.

QThru CEO Aaron Roberts demos the app in front of a sample kiosk in the company's Seattle office.

QThru CEO Aaron Roberts demos the app in front of a sample kiosk in the company’s Seattle office.

When I met with QThru Chief Executive Officer and founder Aaron Roberts, I expected to hear that a mobile wallet system like his would be “the future” of grocery stores. But his goals, at least in the near term, are more humble, and probably more realistic. Self-checkout machines have shown that while many people want to save time, others want to take it easy.

Roberts is squarely in the former group; he first used self-checkout in the mid-90s and hates waiting in line so much that he has stopped shopping at grocery stores that make him do it too often.

But as far as he’s concerned, getting a piece of the action — say, 15 percent of transactions — is ambitious enough.

QThru has its work cut out for itself. After launching in December, it’s operating in just two stores, the Snoqualmie Ridge Supermarket IGA and the Tacoma City Grocer IGA, as well as in tandem with office refrigerators that sell sandwiches from Seattle vendor Molly’s, Grown to Eat. QThru is talking with at least one midsize grocer that could give it a pretty big boost. What happens over the next year will say a lot: Either QThru is mapping its limitations or it’s getting ready to beat them.

Apps like LevelUp have made headway in bringing mobile transactions to coffee shops and food trucks. Starbucks launched an early mobile wallet app that’s done well with its regulars. One indicator that QThru might actually break in to grocery stores: Wal-Mart expanded a test of its own scan-as-you-go app in March. Roberts tried it out at the Wal-Mart in Sumner.

“I was happy that it was a disappointing experience,” he said with a smile.

We can talk about apps and gadgets and what technological narratives presume will be “the future” of something as ordinary as grocery shopping, but experience matters most.

Make it quicker or easier for me to get my groceries and I might pay attention. Make it better and it’s in the bag.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Column, Disruption, Mobile, Retail, Seattle


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