Fine-Tuning the Front End

Grocery shopping. Love it or hate it, one aspect of shopping that few people relish is waiting in line to pay. But change could be coming to the checkout experience, making stores' "front end" more enjoyable for shoppers and profitable for retailers — and a prime opportunity to promote good nutrition.

According to industry experts, several factors converge at the front end that cause consumers distress: After browsing the aisles and selecting their items, shoppers head to the checkout area to unload groceries onto a conveyer belt and part with their money — stressful tasks for some shoppers. A long line can foster feelings of boredom and frustration.

"Checkout is the most dreaded part of the shopping trip, and waiting simply exacerbates the problem," says Steve Zoellner, director of Shopper Merchandising Solutions at Mondelēz International. When there's a wait, shoppers go into "coping mode," often choosing to distract themselves with their mobile phones, for example.

Adding to shoppers' already negative feelings are cluttered displays of product selections they don't need or that aren't complementary. (Have you ever wondered why the lint rollers are hanging between the pantyhose and flashlight keychains?)

The checkout area is the retailer's last chance to make one more sale, so it's to their advantage for the front end to be inviting and encourage "impulse purchases." But only 18 percent of shoppers purchase an item from the checkout area, according to the 2014 Front-End Focus research study. Rather, 84 percent of consumers say looking at products at the checkout counter just gives them something to do while waiting in line, and 66 percent believe items at checkout are unnecessary purchases.

With the right product selection, the checkout area could be a significant source of impulse purchases — perhaps as a little treat for completing a shopping trip. Beverages, confectionery (such as candy, gum and mints) and magazines are considered "power categories" because they generate more than 90 percent of impulse sales at checkout.

They may be small-ticket items, but increasing checkout purchases by just 1 percent could boost a store's average front-end sales by nearly $300 per week, or about $15,350 annually. This sales lift is no small increase in an industry with razor-thin profit margins: In 2013, the average net profit for supermarkets was just 1.3 percent, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Understanding that power categories dominate at checkout, some supermarkets are devoting lanes to health-focused items. An example is Hy-Vee, which operates more than 230 retail stores in the Midwest. Most stores feature at least one "Healthy Bites" checkout lane with a wide selection of "better-for-you" impulse items.

The Sycamore, Ill., location has two Healthy Bites lanes, says Hy-Vee dietitian Lisa Brandt, RDN, LDN. The lanes are stocked with fresh apples and bananas, fruit-and-nut bars, small packages of nuts and trail mix, fruit leather and "all-natural" peanut butter, and single-serving bags of multigrain chips, popcorn and crackers. Healthy Bites coolers are stocked with plain, sparkling and coconut waters, unsweetened teas and 100-percent fruit juice boxes.

"Moms especially like giving their kids a treat they can feel good about," says Brandt, adding that Hy-Vee shoppers appreciate the convenience and wholesomeness of Healthy Bites offerings.

Earlier this year, Elisabeth D'Alto, RD, LDN, a dietitian with East Coast retailer ShopRite, began pilot-testing more nutritious offerings at two checkout lanes at her store in Lutherville-Timonium, Md. The lanes are stocked with fresh fruit, nuts, bars, baked chips and popcorn, plus an endcap cooler with plain bottled water. More offbeat offerings include dry-roasted edamame with goji berries, single-serving packages of water-packed tuna with crackers, and dark chocolate-covered berries. D'Alto makes sure the lanes feature gluten-free, dairy-free, reduced-sodium and reduced-sugar selections, as well.

The pilot test came about after talking with shoppers and store associates during tours and nutrition consultations. "I see a lot of seniors, millennials and moms with kids who need or want to get healthier," D'Alto says. "I wanted to see how we might generate buzz around checkout with these offerings." She is encouraged by positive feedback, and if the lanes become permanent, D'Alto hopes to add non-food items such as exercise bands, water bottles and containers for packing nutritious lunches.

Meanwhile, innovations and new offerings may make checking out the most fun part of a shopping trip. Research that observes shopper behavior suggests several tactics to enhance the experience:

  • Look for opportunities to go high-tech, such as engaging shoppers through touchscreens to interact with product-related content.
  • Remove extra displays that block shoppers' movements and clutter their views of prime impulse products.
  • Create a cohesive experience with harmonious signs and product assortments.

"We need to improve the traffic flow and make it easier for shoppers to navigate the checkout area," says Zoellner. "The front end can be a unique and inviting shopping destination."

Diane Quagliani

Diane Quagliani, MBA, RDN, LDN, is president of Quagliani Communications, Inc., a nutrition communications firm in Western Springs, Ill.