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Food shoppers encountering more technology

When customers go into certain Tops Markets, they can grab a hand-held scanner, scan and bag their groceries as they go, then swiftly check out.

It's not the way everyone wants to shop. But customers appreciate the option, said Nick Montepara, Tops' vice president of retail operations.

"Our intent here is to provide an alternative," he said.

Technology is also at work behind the scenes in the supermarket, in ways customers might not realize.

Wegmans has a labor resource management system that keeps tabs on when its stores are busiest. The information allows managers to schedule the work force accordingly, said Donald Reeve, Wegmans' chief information officer.

Similarly, Wegmans' database of product sales helps managers track patterns and determine how much of particular items to order, so that products don't go to waste.

"It becomes a sales tool for them," Reeve said.

Tops remains the market share leader in Buffalo Niagara, with nearly 49 percent of the market, according to June 2006 data from Market Scope, a publication of ACNielsen Trade Dimensions in Wilton, Conn. That was down from 51.7 percent the year before. Wegmans' No. 2 share was unchanged at 26.9 percent. Wal-Mart was a distant third at 5.6 percent.

Both of the region's two leading chains, Tops and Wegmans, say they constantly explore new technologies and evaluate how they might fit their businesses.

Tops last year on a limited basis at some area stores rolled out three consumer technologies: EasyShop, which are the hand-held scanners, Easy- Weigh, which are electronic scales that generate labels, and Shopping Solutions, which are kiosks that allow customers to place deli orders and print recipes, among other tasks.

Montepara said Tops is watching the technologies' results closely before deciding whether to expand them into more stores.

Each has its particular appeal, he said. Customers like using the scales to print coupons and locate items in the store. The scales let them know exactly how much they are paying prior to checkout. And the Easy- Shop scanners allow them to bag groceries just the way they like and keep a running tally of their bill and savings.

Younger shoppers are not the only ones making use of the technologies, he said; seniors are also tapping into them.

Montepara said Tops takes a methodical approach to introducing any technology offered to customers, making sure employees are well versed in how it works and dedicating staff to answering customers' questions in the first few weeks after it arrives.

"We wouldn't be investing in these technologies if it wasn't a benefit for customers," he said.

But the company is careful to not "force" new technologies on customers, he said. The chain offers self-checkout lanes at a number of stores and might install more. But it wants to ensure there are always enough of the traditional employeestaffed lanes available for customers who prefer them.

"We're always looking to put it where the customers are looking to gravitate to it," he said.

Wegmans is continuing to research self-checkout service, and Reeve, the CIO, said he expects to see it start appearing in Wegmans stores in a year or two.

"We've seen where we feel there need to be some additional improvements" in self-checkout technology, Reeve said.

While Wegmans sees new technologies as a way to make things run more efficiently, the chain doesn't let them drive its business decisions.

"We're very fussy with understanding how technologies can enable our business," Reeve said.