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Michigan Company Pioneers Unmanned Stores

Michigan Company Pioneers Unmanned Stores

FAST TRACK SNACK. A customer gets ready to complete a transaction at one of Sterling Services’ Fast Track c-stores. The product mix includes bottled beverages (inset) as well as the company’s Abe’s Deli branded prepared foods, packaged snacks and sundries..

More than 800 customers move through the Fast Track convenience shop at Howell (MI) High School on a typical day. They include the school’s students and staff as well as students and staff from a local community college that holds evening classes at the site. The register keeps ringing from early in the morning til past 10 at night—without a single store employee ever showing up (except to replenish stock when needed).

Customers at Howell High, just as at three other Fast Track locations, move through the checkout quickly. That’s because every piece of merchandise—including grab-and-go food and beverage items—are tagged with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) transmitters that automatically register with the POS at the checkout station.

There is no need to scan individual items, as with bar codes. The RFID readers automatically ring up the entire purchase in aggregate, allowing checkout to move briskly.

Payment can be made with cash, credit card or a declining balance card. If a customer tries to leave without paying, an alarm sounds and cameras positioned around the store quickly identify the culprit.

As a result, losses from theft at Fast Track are negligible, says Ray Friedrich, general manager for Sterling Services, a Canton, MI-based vending and foodservice management company that is licensing the technology nationally from a company called Freedom Shopping and actively looking for customers.

The Fast Track store at Howell High sells a la carte snack, food and beverage items outside the school lunch program, along with school logoed merchandise and sundries. Food generates about 30 percent of sales, says Friedrich, noting that it is especially attractive to the community college students for whom it provides an evening meal option.

The selection includes fresh sandwiches and salads as well as microwaveable soups and various snack items. The fresh food, branded under Sterling’s Abe’s Deli label, is prepared by the company in its commissary kitchen and delivered to the school each day.

Because the RFID tags transmit sales data every 15 minutes to the central processor, Sterling can track inventory levels and replenish as needed. The transmissions also provide valuable time-of-day sales data that allows the company to tweak its product mix to best meet customer needs.

The store at Howell High is a partnership between Sterling and the school’s marketing class, which is using it as a real-life business lesson. However, the other three Fast Track locations—at a hospital and two B&I outlets—are managed as part of the in-house food and retail services department.

At Garden City (MI) Hospital, the 400-sq.ft. Fast Track store is open 24 hours a day and gives late shift staff a viable meal option. The store also sells magazines and sundries and sees up to 300 transactions daily, many from the off hours after the regular cafeteria closes, says Friedrich. Food represents more than a third of sales.

The latest fast Track location is a Ford Motor plant where the store will offer an alternative to the cafeteria, he says. “It’s like having a mini 7-Eleven at the site. In terms of offering food, this is the sweet spot between vending and a manned cafeteria operation. We believe it is a very attractive niche.”

Sterling Services is primarily a vending company, though it does operate four onsite cafeterias. “Managing cafeteria operations is a new business for us,” says Friedrich. “We believe having the Fast Track option will be a boost as we look for more business.”

To make the system work,Sterling has to apply RFID tags to each piece of merchandise at its warehouse. The process has its costs—about 13 cents per piece—but much less than the costs associated with manning a c-store or operating without the data—and theft deterence—RFID supplies, Friedrich notes.

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