The Checkout

Whose Line is This TV's Anyway?

I went to the beach for an old-fashioned vacation last week and got a glimpse of the future: Checkout TV at the supermarket.

Now that TVs are in every corner of every airport and even in a growing number of elevators, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see them in the grocery store. But I was. As I approached the checkout, there it was: a very loud TV promoting one supermarket item after another. And when the line was long enough (which it was a couple of times), I even got to listen to some entertainment news, including that night's schedule of TV shows. The Checkout TV was so loud and distracting that I didn't even think about scanning the headlines of the Enquirer or Star for the latest gossip about Angelina and Brad. Or worse, fret that the line was moving slowly.

And that's precisely the point. Food industry officials say customers hate to wait in line so the TVs are there to help reduce the perceived waiting time. (In the process, the TVs also may help boost a store's revenues since the store may get money from the TV advertisers for carrying their promotions.)

I spotted Checkout TV in an Acme supermarket on the New Jersey shore. Acme was part of Albertsons, which was acquired recently by SuperValu. SuperValu's spokeswoman Haley M. Meyer said the TVs "were installed after customer surveys told us that shoppers wanted more useful information where and when they were making their purchasing decisions. Programming includes integrated information and advertising focused on health, home and family ... topics deemed to be of special interest to most shoppers."

She added: "Customers view the videos during the two or three minutes they may be waiting in the checkout line, so, by and large, they welcome the diversion and perhaps a reminder of something they forgot to pick up on their store visit." The vast majority of customers like the TVs, she said, although Supervalu realizes there may be a small number in the "minority faction."

I guess I'm one of the latter, largely because the TV was so loud I found it obtrusive. A few days later, I was in an elevator with a TV, but in that case, there was no sound. So it was my choice if I wanted to pay attention to the screen or not. I had no such choice at the supermarket. Even the checkout clerk grumbled when I asked him about TVs. He said that a few months earlier, he ended up listening to Justin Timberlake over and over again; by the time he left work he felt like doing something criminal. Since then, he has tried to work at the one checkout lane that doesn't have the TV, but he's not always successful.

Premier Retail Networks (PRN)
runs the Checkout TV network that's found in Acme. It has TVs in 1,110 supermarkets nationwide. Anne White, PRN's vice president of programming and creative, said she can't recall any programming involving Justin Timberlake; the clerk may have confused it with other in-store programming.

Perhaps that means there's too much advertising in the store? White thinks not. "With the proliferation of advertising all around, we don't want to be invasive, but at the same time, the checkout line is a great opportunity to do something to take peoples' minds off waiting in line. ... No matter how great your shopping experience may be in a store, if you have to stand in line, you will not consider it a good experience," White said.

PRN studies, she added, show that 76 percent of supermarket shoppers watch Checkout TV when it's available; of those, 94 percent say "it's a good thing."

And White added, there are other companies also offering some sort of checkout TV service. In other words, she acknowledged, it's only a matter of time before the future comes to my store, too.

By  |  August 9, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Marketing
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Talk about spin!!

First, I'd like to know where Haley Meyer shops, because if she thinks that the average wait in a supermarket line is 2 or 3 minutes, the she REALLY needs to get out and visit some of those SuperValu stores that she represents.

But I do wonder how many times these folks need to say that advertising is a "welcome distraction" before they actually believe it. It's not, it's advertising.

My office elevators have TV monitors that provide some actual content in the form of trivia, news headlines, and interesting factoids, all presented - silently - alongside some ads. Like Caroline, I don't mind this. I can read the screen or turn away.

However, the supermarket TVs that I've seen are true to Caroline's description, they're 98% advertising, loud and intrusive. A very UN-welcome distraction.

Posted by: Shopper | August 9, 2006 7:48 AM

Creative and voluntary advertisement presentation is fine, but like many of today's applied business behaviors undesired imposition is offensive and can only be changed by customer actions. Don't like movie ads, stop going to theatres which can hold you hostage "on your dime" for up to 30 minutes before the new movie trailers. If Checkout TV is offensive to you switch to another source of groceries. There are only a few products i.e. gasoline that the consumer cannot speak with his/her business, so we need to start actively expressing ourselves.

Posted by: Pavlov's Antithesis | August 9, 2006 8:40 AM

OMG it is the adult version of Bus Radio (the radio statio they want to play on school buses). Talk about captive audience. It has to be pretty compelling if it makes you forget to scan the cover of Star and the Weekly World News.
About 5 years ago I started using my waiting time in line as a time to meditate... This is seriously going to distract from being in the moment.

Posted by: Momma Daria | August 9, 2006 8:43 AM

I expect they use "did not complain" == "likes TVs" as the metric. I hate those things unless they have the sound off.

Posted by: Michael | August 9, 2006 8:56 AM

I think I'll write to my grocery stores around here and PRE-complain. I'm guessing the 'zapper' remote control thingy that turns off TVs won't work.

Posted by: Ughhh | August 9, 2006 9:17 AM

2 to 3 minutes in line? Here in Northeast DC, the average line at the grocery store is about 30 minutes, enough to watch an entire TV show.

What they should do is put a pay-per-view TV on each cart, complete with headphones. I would pay a couple bucks to have something (of my choice) to watch during the long wait. Of course, all the carts would be stolen the first day.

Posted by: Clarissa | August 9, 2006 9:32 AM

This is all about money, plain and simple. Rather than pay money for more cashiers or managers to help reduce the wait, stores would rather increase their revenue with more advertising. It's kinda like the "Pre-show program" we are now forced to watch at movie theaters, if we want to get a good seat. If supermarkets are allowed to do this, how about requiring stores to display how much advertising revenue they are making from each TV? Force them to be honest.

Posted by: Bob | August 9, 2006 9:56 AM

This kind of over-the-top commercialism only happens b/c people let it. Folks, if you don't like this, as I don't, then get vocal about it - pull the manager of the store over and let s/he know how you feel and that it makes you not want to patronize the store. If people speak with their wallets and enough hours of that managers day get used up by people complaining about their marketing strategy I can guarantee you it will be short-lived. I, personally, would rather stare at the tops of my shoes and contemplate anything that comes to my mind than withstand yet another barrage of ads brought on by marketers who seem to think every square inch of the fabric of time and space must be filled with ads for something.

Also, I like the quote by SuperValu's spokeswoman Haley M. Meyer saying the TV's "were installed after customer surveys told us that shoppers wanted more useful information where and when they were making their purchasing decisions. Programming includes integrated information and advertising focused on health, home and family ... topics deemed to be of special interest to most shoppers." I find it hard to believe people asked for TVs showing non-stop commercials in the checkout line - do they think we're that dumb? It reminds me of a joke an old boss once sent me, which is probably closer to the truth of how they reached this conclusion:


In the beginning was the Plan.

And then came the assumptions.

And the assumptions were without form.

And the Plan was without substance.
And the darkness was on the face of the

And they spoke among themselves, saying, It is a crock of sh*t, and it stinketh."

And the workers went unto their supervisors and said, "It is a pail of
dung, and none may abide the odor thereof."

And the supervisors went unto their managers, saying, "It is a container
of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none can abide by it."

And the managers went unto the directors,
saying, "It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide by its strength."

And the directors spoke amongth themselves, saying to one another, "It
contains that which aids plant growth, and it is very strong."

And the directors went unto the vice
presidents, saying, "It promotes
growth, and it is very powerful."

And the vice presidents went unto the
president, saying unto him, "This
new Plan will actively promote the growth and vigor of the company, with
powerful effects."

And the president looked upon the Plan and saw that it was good.

And the Plan became Policy.

This is how sh*t happens.

Posted by: Jason in Arlington | August 9, 2006 10:15 AM

I can't even think where to begin with this one! First of all, a wait of less than ten minutes in line at any grocery store is the exception, not the rule. More often than not, I spend more time waiting in line than I do actually shopping, and that doesn't make me want to spend more money. And this is too easy for the stores to use as an excuse for further reductions in staff and delays in checking out, to say nothing of the intrusion from loud volume on a TV. I guess I'll have to have my iPod on me next time I'm shopping. Online shopping and delivery are looking better all the time.

Posted by: Fed Up Shopper | August 9, 2006 10:26 AM

I switched HMO sites because of a loud TV blaring soap operas in the waiting room of the downtown Baltimore Kaiser Permanente site. It was awful -- you can't hear your name called for prescriptions, lab work, etc.

I called to complain to HQ and was told that most patients like TV to pass the time. I suspect however it amuses the staff more than the patients.

I switched to the White Marsh Kaiser. At least they have it on the news channel and not blaring as loud.

The emergency vet here blasts the Animal Channel so loud I couldn't think straight when I went in with a pet cat in terrible shape. It added multifold to my existing stress. I took the cat in his last hours back to our family vet where at least the TV is quieter.

Lord we will be a nation of illiterate zombies soon if this idiotic racket arrives at grocery stores.

Thanks posters above for showing I'm not alone in this view.

Posted by: Jeannette in Fells Point | August 9, 2006 10:34 AM

Solution for the grocery with tv's: use the self service check out if they have one, there's less clutter around those stations and probably no tv, at very least a shorter wait usually

More annoying than the grocery: tv's in banks -- you're trying to concentrate on whatever you're there to do, you can barely hear the teller/aka customer service agent behind the glass fortification. It's very loud, and it's live tv, so it's not promoting bank products. who needs it?

And even more annoying and intrusive: 1. closed circuit tv in the primary care doctor's office, where the programming is limited to preachy lectures on health topics, reminiscent of old health class films, and ads for Rx drugs, as if the entire office isn't already an ad for drugs, with every possible item supplied by pharmaceutical companies. I'm waiting for toilet paper with one of their logos printed on it. Even the employees are wearing clothing provided by drug companies, honest to God, hats and tee shirts with logos. But that's digressing...

2. And the prize for most annoying tv goes to the eye doctor, where half the patients are going to have eye drops and will have blurred vision, others have bandages, so there's a HUGE plasma tv, worthy of a sports bar, mounted up on the wall so you can't get away from it, and it's either playing cartoons or one of the network talk shows, turned up real loud so that if you can't see it very well you can certainly hear it. Very good doctor, just no sense when it comes to the waiting room.

Posted by: Anon | August 9, 2006 11:29 AM

This just ratchets up an already extremely obnoxious practice of stores -- the in-store music service. I neither need nor want those despicable oldies blaring at me through tinny speakers while I shop. And just as you're finally getting into it and the song is reaching its climax it gets faded out and an obnoxious ad comes on.

It's like shopping at Tower Records with the music blaring at you. I mean, hey, do you want me to think about what I came here to buy, or do you want me just to walk out disgustedly?

The minute I see my first TV at a checkout, I'll tell the manager, "Watch me. I'm about to walk out of your store because I can't stand TV. You won't see me again until all the other stores in the area have the same damn thing and I must put up with it or starve. No, no, don't try to tell me how Most People seem to like it. I'm not Most People, I hate it, and I'm leaving now, empty-handed."

A bit of a ramble, but there ya go.

Posted by: Gene | August 9, 2006 11:32 AM

"With the proliferation of advertising all around, we don't want to be invasive, but at the same time, the checkout line is a great opportunity to do something to take peoples' minds off waiting in line. ... No matter how great your shopping experience may be in a store, if you have to stand in line, you will not consider it a good experience," White said.

This is pure crock as it is done routinely today. And it works. Standing in line is not always fun, but it's life and you get to see some idiot behaviour. White knows that most people would rather have a substitute for life at this point, and even advertising will do if there's no choice.

I resent the silent televisions as well. I hate the ones in planes where you have to see the movies even if you didn't rent those wonderful earphones 'that are yours to keep for future ATA, etc., flights.'

I haven't actually seen the TVs in supermarkets yet, but thanks for the warning. And to think how we used to think Muzak was putting a whole society to sleep.

Posted by: Patrick | August 9, 2006 11:54 AM

Jason in Arlington, great post, amen to everything you said.

Jeannette in Fells Point, I've got some news for you: we're already a nation of illiterate zombies, have been for some time now.

Gene, great post, amen to everything you said.

Posted by: Frank in White Plains, NY | August 9, 2006 12:11 PM

How sad that people can't wait in line and occupy themselves with their own thoughts. We have to be constantly entertained to the point where even ads become acceptible. And stores are doing this to provide us with useful information for our shopping decisions? What a load of marketing nonsense. Hey, I've finished my shopping by the time I checkout. If grocery stores and agribusiness were smart, they'd produce or sponsor informative podcasts that I could listen to while I shop and wait in line.

Posted by: Lisa | August 9, 2006 12:47 PM

Where on earth do these marketing people get their information? Who do they poll about these things?? Is there actually one normal person who enjoys these tvs?? They take the survey results and manage to translate it into whatever they want.

Shoppers don't want product information while standing in the checkout line, they want it in the aisles BEFORE making a decision. Duh. And there's no way I'm going to get out of line to go grab something I "forgot". Someone would probably run off with my cart.

I'd much prefer to zone out or scan the tabloids than have some obnoxious advertising blaring at me. It's all useless. Can't we go anywhere and have it be QUIET?? Sometime I like to hear my own thoughts, amazingly enough.

Posted by: RB | August 9, 2006 12:53 PM

I heard on NPR the other day that bathroom advertising is one of the fastest growing fields in the advertising business. Companies are creating toilet paper dispensers that play ad jingles and purchasing space on the back of stall doors. There are even little TVs for urinals in the works that play beer commercials while men do their business. According to NPR, there is a top 10 list of ways to "reach" customers in the bathroom.

Talk about a captive audience. At least consumers can choose to do their grocercy shopping at stores without TVs. I think most people have less choice when and where they use the restroom- when you've got to go, you've got to go!

Posted by: Stephanie | August 9, 2006 2:43 PM

I'm either going to bring ear plugs to the grocery store or just shot myself in the head when I see one of those TVs. Maybe that'll get them to stop?

Posted by: Melissa | August 9, 2006 3:45 PM

Looks like it's time to get a TV-B-Gone:

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | August 9, 2006 4:17 PM

There was an unfortunate misquoting in the TV article. Correction here:

She added: "Customers view the videos during the two or thirteen minutes they typically wait in the checkout line, so, by and large, they must accept the badgering and tolerate the push-marketing of products they did not desire to pick up on their store visit." The vast majority of customers deeply resent the TVs, she said, although Supervalu realizes there may be a small number in the "minority faction."

PRN studies, she added, show that 86 percent of supermarket shoppers cannot avoid the enforcement of Checkout TV; of those, 94 percent say "I wish I could break that thing without getting in trouble, or at least just turn it off."

Posted by: Armand | August 9, 2006 4:38 PM

Why is this happening? Let's face it: It's getting harder and harder for companies to reach you. If you TiVo your TV programs you can zoom right past the commercials, or you can choose to watch commercial-free stations (I've stopped watching AMC movies and now only watch Turner or a premium station). Highway beautification programs are reducing or eliminating billboards. Municipalities are restricting the size of the fast-food sign out front. You tell telemarketers that you won't buy from them, that they should send you info in the mail, but then you know (and they know) you just throw it away when it comes in. Lots of commercial-free radio stations on satellite radio and cable TV (like Music Choice). On and on. Think about it: How else can these people get your attention to tell you about their products? It's always been a game of cat-and-mouse, the marketers finding new ways to get your attention. Somehow it never occurs to them that if you, the consumer, want to learn about something, you just flick on the computer, access the net, and away you go. But that's a "pull." They want "push." They want to be in control. Even cultural organizations want to control the course of your discovery. Symphonies give you little blurbs about what they're playing, and they make even the dogs sound interesting and worthwhile.

The only thing we poor consumers can do is stick to our guns, tell everybody who is in a position of power to do something about it, that we won't be taken in as a captive audience easily. We may never completely win, but we can keep the world sane by continuing to fight the good fight.

Posted by: Gene (again) | August 9, 2006 5:17 PM

"Useful information," my @$$.

If I want to hear BS, I'll listen to a soundbite from a politcian. I'm hoping that the person who thinks the zapper won't work is mistaken.

Posted by: Mister Methane | August 9, 2006 5:37 PM

Come on!! This has been on the way for a long time. What did you do, sleep through the movie "Blade Runner"?

I suppose that you think the ads you see inserted by your cable TV company are just random. Well, keep your eyes open and you'll be seeing these targeted at specific neighborhoods too.

If you don't like it then go find a manager and bend his ear. Or better yet, write a letter to the grocery chain.

BTW, many of these checkout tv systems are run as a cooperative ventures by major media giants and the grocery store chain gets only limited ad opprotunities because they provide the "space". And don't blink because they'll be showing up in transit systems (in car), shopping malls, banks, etc.

Posted by: Tom | August 9, 2006 5:42 PM

Just a brief add-on to my previous post.

Most of these in-store systems are beyond just running ads. Many of them run news, e.g., CNN, MSNBC, etc., or special interst programming and then locally insert their own commercial material. In many cases the availability the in-store system to inserts is much higher than normal television. However, you need to recognize that most television programming now has opening for 18~20 minutes of commercial time per hour. Don't believe me? Add it up some time.

Posted by: Tom | August 9, 2006 5:46 PM

I think we're soon going to add "going grocery" to our language. It will have the same meaning as "going postal."

Posted by: Anonymous | August 9, 2006 6:06 PM

I experienced checkout TV at Krogers in Ann Arbor, MI about 1990. It was horrible. At the end of a busy day at work the last thing I wanted was to be assaulted in line at a grocery store where I was waiting to spend money. I complained and others must have also because it disappeared relatively quickly.

The next time was in the San Francisco Bay area 8-10 years ago. This time was at a gas station. Loud obnoxious screens shouting at me over the sounds of traffic. Yuck! Once again they took a quick exit.

In both circumstances I would have changed stores or stations to get away from this sort of thing. It's bad enough when I choose to watch programs that have commercials, but to be a paying audience - you've got to be kidding.

Posted by: Ellen | August 10, 2006 2:40 AM

Gene, very insightful! I've owned a ReplayTV DVR since my daughter was born, and we've all found our tolerance for ads or even having our preferred content "pushed" at us instead of "pulling" it off the DVR has diminished greatly. I don't think we've ever watched a whole show without pausing it to talk.

Oh, and I highly recommend the Kentlands Stadium 10 movie theater in Gaithersburg, which does not show ANY of those annoying commercials before the previews. (I think they might do the slides, but I mean the TV-style Coke and Fandango commercials, which I find incredibly annoying considering I PAID to see a movie. I like previews, though.)

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | August 10, 2006 11:12 AM

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