Finding the sweet spot at the register

Self-checkout poses challenges for impulse candy buys

I tried approx. 5,342 (give or take) pieces of candy at the Sweets and Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago last week. And while all that sugar made me crash pretty hard, I still came out with a clear favorite — those crazy, addicting Snicker’s Bites.

Scientifically speaking, the different distribution of chocolate around the small squares of peanuts, caramel and nougat makes them taste just slightly different than your average Snicker’s bar, giving them a flavor combination akin to ambrosia.

Crystal Lindell

In fact, they’re so addicting, that even though my entire coffee table and my kitchen table are both literally filled with samples from the Expo, I actually bought three packages of these things since last week. And then I ate them.

Hi. My name is Crystal and I’m actually eating Snicker’s Bites as I type this. No amount of counseling will stop me.

But, buying candy, made by Mars, brings me to my real point — checkout lanes.

You see, although grabbing a pack of Snicker’s Bites as I made my way up to the cashier at the checkout lane was a non-event for me, it was a scientific research project for Mars akin to space shuttle management.

The company recently showed the press a few of the ways they have studied checkout lines while we walked through their booth during a press event at the Expo.

Ryan Broderick, director of strategic insights for Mars Chocolate North America, explained how important the front-end of every type of store is, seeing as how 100 percent of customers walk through it. 

And even when all the shopping stars align for someone and they are able to walk right up to the register, plop their items down on the counter, hand over their credit card, grab their receipt and their bag and then walk out the door, Broderick says they still have about 30 seconds of dwell time (read waiting time) at the counter.

That’s 30 seconds for any candy company to sell them a bag of super awesome sugar beans — as long as the sugar beans are priced exactly right, and packaged in exactly the right colors and placed in exactly the spot the person is likely to look.

The good news is that during this time, many people impulsively grab items for themselves from the checkout lines — one of the few places in the stores where those magical factors come into play.

And seeing as how companies such as Mars have put so much time and energy into studying checkout lines, they’ve also come up with some pretty great ways to sell even the smallest Snicker’s Bite before you have time to tell the cashier whether you’re paying with cash or credit. 

Alas, if it were only that simple. Unfortunately, like everything else, checkout lines are changing with the times.

Which brings us to self-checkouts.

As a former Wal-mart cashier, when I first saw them start to pop up in stores, I stupidly thought I would have some special skills for the machines and dove in cart first. Unfortunately, they were nothing like the registers I was trained on, and I found myself calling for assistance pretty much every time I used one.

That was years ago though, and now most of the kinks seemed to have been worked out. And so, I find myself in the ever-growing group of customers more willing to use them. Broderick showed us data that more consumers 18-49 prefer self-checkout convenience and speed.

My very wise editor-in-chief Bernie Pacyniak isn’t quite in that category, and I assume he speaks for his entire age group when he explains that they should pay him to use the self-checkout seeing as how he’s doing all the labor.

Sadly, it looks like Bernie is on the losing end of this debate. Broderick says the devices are being installed in more and more stores, and they’re all being used by more customers as shoppers become more comfortable with them.

And suddenly every fact and figure about dwell time and candy placement at the register isn’t quite right. Customers aren’t looking at the same racks as they approach, they aren’t standing at the counter as long because the whole point of a self-checkout is that they’re faster. And there’s no cashier to nicely point them toward any special buys.

Mars had a self checkout set up at their booth during the Expo, with candy bars at the front as shoppers approach, then magazines on the left of the shoppers as they get closer, and finally gum and mints right next to the register.

But even the best laid planograms have issues. 

self checkout

For one thing, Mars says many stores are installing self checkouts without even telling them, making it hard to come up with ways to place the candy at just the right spot.

Worse yet, research is showing that there’s been an 10 percent dip in impulse purchases at self-check outs. 

As Tim Lebel, Vice President of Sales, Grocery, Value and Military Channels

Mars Chocolate North America, said, while pointing to the self-checkout at the end of the presentation, “This is the one that keeps me up at night.”

Luckily, for me, it’s just all those Snicker’s Bites.

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