Not that long ago, grocery stores stamped a price on a box of cereal and “rung” it up by hand-keying the price at the checkout counter. Take the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, or A&P, for example. It was one of the largest chains in the 1930s with 15,709 locations at its peak. At the time, many of those stores were “full-service”: customers asked for items at the front counter, and the store clerk would pick products from the shelf or measure a quantity of flour from a bin, tally the items and take payment. Hand-keying prices didn’t pose much of a problem, because the typical order had only a few items.
But full service would become a relic, thanks to a seed change that had taken root in 1916. Back then, an entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders introduced the concept of a self-service grocery store with the opening of his first Piggly Wiggly location in Memphis, Tennessee. Self-service, in contrast to full-service, allowed customers to roam the store freely, selecting items they wanted from a stocked shelf or stack on the floor and taking those items to a central checkout. In that way, self-service ushered in the concept of larger stores that could hold more goods.
When former Kroger employee Michael J. Cullen opened a 6,000 square foot store in New York City in August of 1930, the age of the supermarket began. To encourage shoppers to buy more items, Sylvan Goldman, who owned the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma, made a shopping cart out of a chair on wheels and a basket in the seat.
In June of 1937, the first shopping carts were introduced and the grocery industry never looked back. Bigger carts meant consumers could buy more, which led to increased assortments and larger locations. But then a new problem presented itself. Moving basketfuls of items overwhelmed the old-style, hand-keyed checkout, and the problem of long lines at checkout and the question of price entry accuracy quickly emerged.
Neither problem would be solved for another 44 years.
It wasn’t until the invention and practical use of the Universal Product Code, or UPC, that the problem of slow checkout and pricing inaccuracies found a solution. Now, checkout speed and data integrity were now at the forefront.