Everybody makes mistakes. But when those mistakes

involve mis-rings for pricey fruits or vegetables, they can hurt your bottom line.

Tightening up the checkout process and taking steps to prevent erroneous ring-throughs can help keep profits from walking out the front door.

The introduction of Price Look-Up numbers more than a decade ago did wonders to ensure a correct ring, retailers and industry experts say.

In the case of apples, for example, up to 8% of the time, checkers who were unable to identify unfamiliar varieties rang them up as the usually lower-priced red delicious, says Ronnie De Le Cruz of Salinas, Calif.-based De Le Cruz Consulting and Training.

It all adds upPLUs and Universal Product Codes for fixed-weight packages have significantly reduced the problem of mis-rings but not eliminated it, especially for new or organic items, says Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, Calif.

Sometimes the physical size of the PLU is problematic.

“Many growers and shippers use the label for marketing, and the PLU number is really small and below the Produce Marketing Association’s recommendation of 12 points,” Spezzano says.


GS1 to the rescue

GS1 labels now being introduced could be a big help in ensuring an accurate ring-through.

The label has a PLU and UPC barcode, and it’s used both on fixed and scalable items that new checkout software can read.

“If (the item) has to be scaled, (the label) will call for it, and the system does the computing of what it is, whose it is, weight and retail price,” Spezzano says.

“When implemented, it will reduce the error factors — especially on weighable items and organic items, which is where most mistakes occur at the checkout.”

Many chains have installed or are in the process of installing GS1 systems, but few have started to use them.

“I think they are waiting for the growers and shippers to catch up,” Spezzano says.

Lincoln, Neb.-based B&R Stores is just starting to work with a GS1 system, says produce director Randy Bohaty.

“That will take us one notch up,” he says.


Mis-rings a rarity

Mis-rings for produce are practically nonexistent for Sunset Foods Inc., a group of five stores based in Highland Park, Ill., says Vince Mastromauro, produce director.

The stores ensure accurate ring-through by weighing shoppers’ fruits and vegetables before they leave the produce department.

Stores designate two employees who weigh customers’ fruits and vegetables on a scale that prints out a barcode that the cashier scans at checkout.

The process is a voluntary one, but Mastromauro says 90% of the store’s produce is pre-weighed.

Steps are taken to prevent shoppers from tampering with the bag after it’s weighed.

“(Scales are) strategically set up (where shoppers) exit the department, and we twist tie or knot up the bag for them,” he says.

The biggest challenge for Sunset Foods is ensuring a proper ring for Idaho potatoes and sweet potatoes that don’t come with stickers.

“There’s potential for a mistake with that on the bulk potato sets,” Mastromauro says.


PLU 101

Meanwhile, B&R Stores, like many supermarket chains, rely mostly on good, old-fashioned cashier training to help keep mis-rings to a minimum.

A common problem is that experienced checkers who have memorized PLU numbers may ring up produce items without visually checking PLU stickers. That means they might inadvertently ring up a premium item at the price of a conventional one.It all adds up

“Our checkers are trained to utilize the PLU numbers on the stickers,” Bohaty says.

The company gives checkers an identification test of 15 items on a regular basis. The home office selects 10 items, and the local stores pick five items that management feels need attention.

Checkers who don’t pass the test can retake it. Failing more than once subjects checkers to “a disciplinary process.”

“We don’t have to utilize that very often at all,” Bohaty says.


Training important

Education plays an important role in combating mis-rings at Publix Super Markets, Lakeland Fla., says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for the chain of 1,061 stores.

“Our cashiers are trained to verify PLUs,” she says, adding that she does not consider mis-rings to be a major problem.

The stores also calibrate their scales on a regular basis to ensure that produce is weighed accurately, she adds.

Properly identifying various sizes of items such as oranges that are missing stickers is one of the biggest pricing challenges that Lancaster, Pa.-based Darrenkamp’s Food Market locations face, says Tom Oberholtzer, produce manager for one of the company’s three stores.

“It’s tough to make sure everything has a sticker,” he says.

When new cashiers are hired, they are subjected to more training in the produce department than in any other department.

“They do it a couple of different times just to make sure that they can tell the basics apart,” he says.


Weak links

While De Le Cruz considers mis-rings to be a “decreasing

problem,” weak links remain.

“Organic and locally grown are the next wave of items to be dealt with within this environment,” De Le Cruz says.

Mis-rings on organics are possible but rare at Sunset Foods, Mastromauro says.

“With proper training and, hopefully, the individual takes pride in what they do, you hope that that’s an uncommon occurrence,” he says.

At B&R Stores, checkers misidentifying items that don’t have PLU codes or using the wrong memorized codes results in more mis-rings than organic versus conventional, Bohaty says.

Publix stores plainly mark organic items when possible, Brous says.

Organic bananas, for example, have a different colored band than conventional ones.

Ensuring an accurate ring for organics is not much of a problem at Darrenkamp’s, Oberholtzer says.

“A lot of the organics that we use come prewrapped, or we wrap them here, and there’s actually a scannable barcode on them,” he says.


Picture this

It may not be long before neither PLUs nor UPCs are needed to ensure a proper ring.

Tokyo-based Toshiba Corp. has demonstrated new technology that doesn’t require numbers or barcodes to identify fruits and vegetables.

The company’s Object Recognition Scanner reportedly can identify produce — or even packaged grocery items — using technology similar to facial-recognition systems. The technology uses a high-speed camera that can recognize subtle differences between similar products, such as apple varieties.

The technology likely will be limited to Japan — and to Japanese produce — at first, but with today’s global marketplace, it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s available worldwide.


Self-checkout checkup

The proliferation of supermarket self-checkout lanes has opened up another potential source of produce mis-rings: consumers themselves.

Some major chains, including Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y Foods Inc., have phased out or are cutting back self-checkout lanes.

Big Y cited “accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less expensive varieties,” as one of the factors in closing the lanes, according to an Associated Press story.

Still, few retailers seem to consider the self-checkout process a major source of produce shrink, but they admit that the potential for error is there.

“If there is consumer error, it is predominantly accidental,” says Ronnie De Le Cruz of Salinas, Calif.-based De Le Cruz Consulting & Training. “But there is also the potential for deliberate error.”

Less than a dozen of the 1,000-plus Publix Super Market locations offer self-checkout, says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for the Lakeland, Fla.-based chain.

The opportunity for a mis-ring always exists, she says, but she does not consider produce pilferage a problem.

“The majority of our customers are doing the right thing,” she says.

Besides, she adds, an employee is assigned to the self-checkout area whose job is to assist customers “and to be alert.”


Keep a watchful eye

NCR SelfServ Checkout systems require consumers to properly weigh and validate their produce items, says Mike Inderrieden, manager for NCR Corp., Duluth, Ga.

“Even though it is called ‘self-checkout,’ NCR encourages retailers to use an associate as an attendant to monitor the transactions at the self-checkout,” he says. “A well-trained associate can monitor between four and six self-checkout stations, assisting customers when needed and keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior.”

Mettler-Toledo LLC, Worthington, Ohio, makes produce scales that can integrate with self-checkout systems, says David Ciolek, retail network product manager.

Such systems are popular in Europe and are just starting to catch on in the U.S., he says. Shoppers weigh their fruits and vegetables in the produce department, and the scale prints out a barcode that can be scanned at a self-checkout kiosk or by a cashier at the regular cash register. The units can read the new Global Trade Item Numbers and barcodes.

“That makes it even more accurate than relying on the consumer to type in the correct PLU,” Ciolek says.

Chances of operator error are greater at the standard checkout lane because cashiers typically are evaluated “based on throughput and productivity,” he says.

“You get a lot of operator errors there,” he says.

Chances of consumers mislabeling product are less than the chances of operator error, Ciolek says.


Smart phone scanner

QThru, a Seattle-based technology company, has released a new mobile platform that enables consumers to scan items, including fruits and vegetables, with their smart phones as they shop, says Aaron Roberts, founder and chief executive officer.

There’s no charge for a supermarket to integrate with QThru, but a checkout kiosk costs $900 and adding a digital scale brings the price to $5,000 — “a fraction of the cost of the self-checkout stands you see today,” the company says.

Consumers use the platform to charge their purchases to their credit cards.

There can be mis-rings, Roberts concedes, but he says lazy or inattentive cashiers also pose a risk by ringing up organic items as conventional, for example.

“There are risks everywhere,” he says. “We tend to think that consumers, especially ones that are buying organic, are going to be more honest.”

QThru is being tested at the IGA Ridge Supermarket in Snoqualmie, Wash., where store manager Jessica Brookman says that a few early kinks were quickly worked out.

“Everything seems to be working fine now,” she says.

The store regularly checks actual produce inventory against the store’s front end system, and the two have been in sync.