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Shopping without tears: a parents' guide

Waitrose's QuickCheck scanner a real time-saver

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Review Quocirca's Jon Collins gets to grips with Waitrose's QuickCheck scanners - and finds them an amusing diversion for kids and a real time-saver for long-suffering parents.

All parents knows that a supermarket is not the best place to take a child. Even the most un-material of infants lasts only half an hour before descending into cries of “can I have one of those?” Other kids will decide that running up and down the aisles playing tag is a far more productive use of their time than waiting patiently by a shopping trolley. They’d be right, of course, but this information isn’t a great help when you’re trying to get out of the place as quickly as possible.

The last time I ventured into Waitrose with my eight-year-old daughter the cry was, however, different. “What are those, Daddy?” asked Sophie, pointing towards the rack of QuickCheck scanners. I explained, patiently, how customers could scan the bar codes on their own purchases as they put them in the trolley, so they wouldn’t have to queue up at the till. “Can we have a go?” Sophie implored. “No, we can’t,” I snapped, already preparing for what looked like becoming a long shopping trip. Almost immediately, however, I changed my mind. All day I write about experimenting with the wonders of technology, and I am denying a simple request from my own child to do the same.

Rather than walking straight past the matrix of devices, as I had so frequently done before, we went over and I attempted to lift a scanner from its bracket. It was locked in place but I had clearly upset the thing, as it commenced a reboot sequence. My eyes widened slightly as its small screen registered a DHCP request to obtain an IP address. I’m not sure what DHCP stands for but I do recognise it as an industry standard protocol, used for connecting desktops to servers and home PC’s to the internet. The messages on the LCD screen also triggered the nerdy side of my brain into action. “Alright,” I said, in mock exasperation. “Let’s see what we can do.”

We went over to the information desk, where a stack of leaflets invited customers to register for a free trial of the QuickCheck service. When I asked however, the kind people behind the counter were thrown into a turmoil: clearly they had not had such a request very often, if ever. I can only surmise that not many people are testing out the service, or perhaps the issue was the horrifying thought that I did not have a John Lewis account card. Eventually, with a little help from the supervisor and a bright lad from stores, we were in business. I strode away, clutching the hand scanner like the laser gun it had clearly been designed to resemble. Of course, my pleasure didn’t last long, as Sophie quickly wrenched the thing from my grasp.

The controls were simple and effective. Pushing one button enabled an item to be scanned, as it was put into the basket. A second button enabled the item to be removed from the list. A rolling total was given, and there was even room for the occasional special offer to pop up on screen. Shopping was a breeze, as we giggled our way around the store, scanning everything we could lay our hands on. When we had finished our shopping, we took it back to the counter where, sadly, it had to be run through the till in the normal way. This was only a test, after all. As we waited, I watched a silver-haired man paying for his own QuickChecked groceries, using a machine not unlike a cashpoint. For him there were no queues, no wasted time, some might say it was shopping as it should be done.

Overall, I was sufficiently impressed to get in touch with Symbol Technologies (who make the scanners), who in turn put me in touch with Luke Holman, the Waitrose project manager of the QuickCheck scheme. Was it really a strategic technology, or just a gimmicky way to get one over on the competition? “We believe in it strongly, as an alternative way for customers to shop in a branch,” says Luke. So he should – according to Waitrose’s own figures, the QuickCheck scheme accounts for 23 per cent of trade at the store’s top branches, and 15 per cent of trade overall. Furthermore and unexpectedly, it is a powerful barrier to competition. “When a competitor opens a supermarket in the same area as a Waitrose store, sales may drop, but the QuickCheck figures remain static.”

Waitrose is in a unique position, as it is a smaller supermarket chain linked to a major retail chain with its own store card. Only John Lewis account holders can participate - though the offer to open an account is available to all - meaning that users of the scheme are already credit checked before they are able to use the system. Fraud is minimised, and even if the genteel clientele of the store were likely to abuse the system, the occasional spot check keeps that in hand. Indeed, the word is that the takings are positively skewed, in that people seem to be paying for more than they buy, possibly through mis-scanning accidents that go uncorrected.

What of the future? Without getting too big-brotherish about it, QuickCheck and its linkage to the account card means that a customer’s buying patterns can be monitored in real time. At the moment, Waitrose is considering how to target offers to specific customers in the most appropriate fashion. There are potential data protection issues, but things are not at the stage where that is an issue. “We want to send individual offers to the device, then it’s up to the customer. If you want it, you can take it,” says Luke. Systems are currently operated locally, linked to the in-store server, but in the future there is scope to centralise the scheme and offer better information about products as they are scanned, for example linking to a customer’s allergy records, if requested. There are other opportunities, and quite clearly Waitrose is not resting on its laurels in investigating their potential.

Meanwhile, the rest of us would do well to take a leaf out of the Silver Scanners’ book. The initial registration process may be onerous, but once this is out of the way, here is a live example of a technology saving time and effort for real people. Unless chasing youngsters and standing in supermarket queues is your thing, of course.

Copyright © 2004,

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