LCD in Aisle Three
CHARLOTTE, N.C. --Matthew Allan and Briony Morris used a hand-held bar-code scanner to add glasses and towels to their wedding registry, but they'd never seen one in a supermarket before pulling into the Bloom off W. T. Harris Boulevard here.
"This is a really cool idea," says Morris, who points the white-and-blue scanner at a bottle of merlot, pulls the trigger, and reads the LCD screen. "The total now is $19.86," she tells her fiance as she places the wine in one of the brown-paper bags in their double-decker shopping cart. She does the same with a package of chicken, then some frozen vegetables. By the time they reach the checkout, all that's left to do is pay.
The scanners are one way Bloom hopes to improve grocery shopping. Touch screens scattered around the store guide you to the raisins or the gravy mix, and a machine in the meat department will scan any cut from the refrigerated case and suggest a half-dozen ways to prepare it. Bloom isn't the only company betting that the supermarket of the future will be shaped, or even transformed, by advances in technology. Some Piggly Wiggly stores have introduced biometrics at checkout; a sensor can recognize a regular customer's fingerprint, which releases payment from a bank account or credit card. Online delivery, one of the notable failures of the dot-com era, is finally catching on, and an entrepreneur in the Southwest is developing a drive-through superstore where everything from groceries to dry cleaning can be ordered from a computer beside your car.
No elves. But many of the ideas at Bloom, generated in response to common customer complaints, are distinctly low-tech. Attached to each shopping cart is a map with the store layout, which is supposed to be intuitive; bacon, cereal, and yogurt in a breakfast aisle, pasta grouped by shape, not brand. Aisles are wide and free of clutter. "You won't see a Keebler display with Ernie the Elf jutting into the aisle," says Matt Nereim, Bloom district manager. Nereim leaves out business cards and responds to customer E-mail; other employees wear eye-catching chartreuse shirts and are encouraged to get to know shoppers.
At the front, Bloom has Table Top Circle, a zone with staples (bread, milk, Cool Whip) and various dinner options: frozen pizza, hot roasted chickens, and a case stocked with the ingredients for the Recipe of the Week. With a dedicated Table Top cashier and 20-minute parking spots by the front door, Bloom wants customers to come in for a quick midweek shop, even think of the place as a convenience store.
Why did Food Lion, which has over 1,200 stores at busy intersections from Pennsylvania to Florida, open five Bloom stores in and around Charlotte last year? Warehouse clubs, supercenters, dollar stores, and drugstores that sell food are eating into supermarket business. Whole Foods, built around the idea of natural foods and a healthy lifestyle, is also taking customers from the traditional supermarket, as are gourmet stores, natural-food outlets, and farmers' markets. In 1995, Americans bought 85 percent of their groceries at a supermarket; that share fell to 72 percent by 2002, the year Food Lion's president gave the team that came up with Bloom its marching orders. "He didn't say Wal-Mart, but he might as well have," says Susie McIntosh-Hinson, who is responsible for Bloom's information technology.