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Jan. 24, 2021

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Clark County grocery stores embrace technology, remodel for future

Grocery stores are seeing a host of changes, from remodels to tech improvements and customer conveniences

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
3 Photos
Camas resident Melissa Hansen uses a hand-held scanner to keep track of her grocery purchases at Fisher’s Landing Fred Meyer in east Vancouver. The use of the scanners is one of a few new initiatives the grocery chain is introducing to keep pace with an evolving industry.
Camas resident Melissa Hansen uses a hand-held scanner to keep track of her grocery purchases at Fisher’s Landing Fred Meyer in east Vancouver. The use of the scanners is one of a few new initiatives the grocery chain is introducing to keep pace with an evolving industry. Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

While shopping at Fred Meyer recently, Melissa Hansen held in her hand the grocer’s new device to scan goods on the go. But she may as well have been palming the chain’s hope for the future.

The Fisher’s Landing store recently unveiled kiosks near its entrances where customers can pick up small, calculator-looking devices and use them to scan products as they shop — and spend less time in the checkout line.

“It allows folks to come in and take the helm of their own shopping experience and conveniently scan the items in,” said Jeffery Temple, spokesman for Fred Meyer. “We’re continually looking at what our customers want and trying to optimize the experience and give them more choices in how they can shop with us.”

Convenience, for everyone from big chains to independent neighborhood markets, is the new battlefield for grocers. As more people shop online, stores are changing to help shoppers spend less time walking the aisles.

Industry experts say grocers hope to adapt without losing their biggest draw: tangibility. While some items are easily bought online, customers still want to hold and smell fruits and vegetables or try on clothes before putting them in their cart.

Meeting new demands

Grocery stores today are undergoing many changes. Some of the changes are digital, while others are just some good old-fashioned remodeling to provide customers with more of what they want.

Walmart, for example, announced last month it would spend $56 million remodeling its Washington stores, including two in Vancouver. That’s part of an $11 billion effort to reinvest in stores nationwide.

In Clark County, five of seven Fred Meyer locations are under construction. In Fisher’s Landing, while Hansen shopped, the low-volume pop music was underscored by the clatter of workers dismantling shelves and other work behind a construction apron.

Temple said aisles are getting reshuffled to optimize the layout. Stores are cutting back on some items to give customers more of what market research says they want: more produce, more meat, more seafood and wider aisles.

“You’re going to have a lot more room getting your cart up and down the aisle,” Temple said. “It’s pretty darn nice.”

More room for shopping carts isn’t the only change, however. There are more self-checkout kiosks. Cashier stations have gotten bigger, as well, to bring back the role of baggers to keep lines moving faster.

“It streamlines the process to get our customers through faster and so our cashiers can focus on getting the goods rung up,” he said.

Remodeling is also allowing stores to implement new technologies.

The device in Hansen’s hand is part of Fred Meyer’s new “Scan, Bag, Go” program, where customers can use either a smartphone app or the new devices to scan barcodes as they shop. They can then port the list into a self-checkout station and pay.

“It’s real exciting,” Temple said.

Grocers have also already begun to roll out online ordering platforms. Shoppers at Walmart, Safeway and Fred Meyer can now order online ahead of time and pick up groceries in one rapid trip.

“We’re changing as quickly as our customers tastes are changing, as technology is available to us and to give us an opportunity to make every day easier for busy families,” said Tiffany Wilson, spokeswoman for Walmart locations in the western U.S.

Walmart is rolling out 16-foot-tall machines called “pickup towers” that operate a little like giant vending machines. Customers can buy online ahead of time, walk in and scan a code to have their order dispensed — though there aren’t yet any in Clark County.

“It’s a convenience play,” said Wilson. “Walmart has always been about saving customers money. We’re leveraging new technology and investing in all parts of our business.”

How it affects workers

Whether all of this will pay off remains to be seen.

For one, some customers say they are willing to embrace online ordering and mobile scanning, but others resist it out of fear the technology will take away jobs. That’s a complaint often heard by Maren Clark, who runs the mobile scanning kiosk at the Fisher’s Landing Fred Meyer.

“A lot of people think this is stealing jobs,” she said.

She noted that her store has added cashiers. But even if those jobs are lost in the long run, employees are moving toward newer responsibilities. Fred Meyer’s website lists roughly 90 jobs available within 10 miles of Vancouver, including eCommerce Hourly Associates whose jobs are to collect groceries for online shoppers before they arrive.

“Call it a grocery scavenger hunt on steroids,” the listing said.

The new technologies are also appearing more and more like an arms race, led by e-commerce giant Amazon, and not every store will be able to keep up.

The Seattle-based retailer moved into the brick-and-mortar segment when it bought Whole Foods last August. Plus, it is opening new high-tech stores without cashiers or self-checkout kiosks in Seattle, Boston and San Francisco.

“Amazon is getting so efficient. In a lot of metropolitan areas you’re able to order something and have it delivered within hours,” said Keith Daniels, who analyzes the grocery industry for the New York-based investment banking firm Carl Marks Advisors.

While the large grocery chains have capital to invest and take advantage of new technologies, independent stores might not have that luxury, Daniels said.

“They’ll have to find a good way to preserve themselves and be competitive,” he said. “Whatever that is. I do think regional players are at risk.”

The Washington Food Industry Association, which represents 480 grocers around the state, said all grocers are feeling pressure, but the neighborhood and rural grocers have the benefit of being members of the community.

Stores are hosting more cooking classes, barbecues, Easter egg hunts and costume parties around Halloween, said Jan Gee, president and executive director of the organization.

“It’s a huge area for growth, these events, more so for the neighborhood stores,” she said.

But, she added, the impact to those communities will be greater if those grocers can’t keep pace.

“Think about the communities across the state where they have only one grocery store and that store is the sponsor of the kids’ baseball team or the largest donor to the food bank,” she said. “The communities have to do their part. They need to be shopping at local grocers so they can survive.”

Update: A previous version of this article misstated the total number of Fred Meyer locations in Clark County.

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