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Top stores
Here’s a look at the top 10 retailers based on 2012 U.S. annual sales:
Wal-Mart – $328 billion
Kroger – $92 billion
Target – $72 billion
Costco – $71 billion
Home Depot – $66 billion
Walgreens – $65 billion
CVS Caremark – $63 billion
Lowe’s – $49 billion
Safeway – $37 billion
McDonald’s – $35 billion
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Rachel McCarty and her mom, Gina, use the self-checkout at Kroger Marketplace on Dupont Road.

Shop in line or online?

Stores using technology to keep customers in Internet age

Stores are using technology in an effort to retain customers as online options become more popular.
Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Monique Griswold holds up her smartphone, which stores the bar code of her Kroger card, for a cashier at the store to scan at the Kroger Marketplace store on Dupont Road.

Paper or plastic isn’t the only decision facing shoppers at checkout.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are out to prove they are every bit as convenient as their online competitors – maybe more so. After all, buying from a traditional store means customers get their goods immediately. Still, retailers are offering customers several choices at checkout to make sure the shopping experience is a pleasant one.

Kroger Co., for instance, has launched a new app that works on Android and Apple smartphones. A cashier can scan a mobile device, which will call up a shopper’s fuel points, coupons and other information. This eliminates having to keep up with the retailer’s rewards card or key tag.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is testing a similar system.

“People are on the go and in a hurry,” said Kroger spokesman John Elliott. “The more stuff they can do, the faster they can be on their way.”

Kroger customers also can renew prescriptions and complete other tasks using their smartphones. Retailers nimble and up-to-date with technology are the ones that will remain relevant, Elliott said.

Kroger Marketplace stores on Coventry Lane and Dupont Road use QueVision, a computer system that tracks customer traffic and attempts to ease long lines. Monitors are placed above checkout aisles that display the number of lanes open and how many lanes should be open at a given time.

The Cincinnati-based retailer must be on the right track. Last month, Kroger beat Wall Street’s expectations by posting a higher quarterly net income than the previous year. The company earned $481 million, or 92 cents a share, compared with $439 million, or 78 cents a share, during the same period last year.

Still, online retail in the nation continues to grow, outpacing sales growth at traditional stores and snatching market share. E-commerce retail will reach $262 billion this year – 13 percent more than $231 billion in 2012, according to Forrester Research Inc. The independent firm says online transactions represent 8 percent of total retail sales.

The National Retail Federation expects traditional stores’ sales, which exclude automobiles, gas stations and restaurants, to increase 3.4 percent this year. According to census data, retail sales in 2012 were $4.5 trillion.

Indiana Retail Council President Grant Monahan says the brick-and-mortar battle is far from lost. Online consumers may rave over the method’s click-of-a-mouse ease, but nothing replaces the human element, he said.

“Convenience is a huge driver for online sales, and that’s not going to change,” Monahan said. “There is something to be said, though, about personal service and being part of a community. Those are things that small retailers, in particular, can emphasize and can pay off in the long run.”

In other words, an online chat can’t take the place of face-to-face contact, he said.

A Monday report on U.S. retail sales backed that up. Of the top 100 companies, only and Dell made the list, according to a National Retail Federation publication. Amazon was in 11th place with $34 billion in sales, and Dell was 83rd with $4.3 billion.

Kroger placed second with $92 billion in sales. Wal-Mart was far away the leader with $328 billion.

The human element is in play here.

“The personal touch is what brick-and-mortar retailers have going for them,” Monahan said.

That is important to Rosie Bultemeier. The Decatur grandmother says she rarely shops online.

“I just don’t care for it,” said Bultemeier, who visited Jefferson Pointe recently. “I like being able to see a face.”

Others, however, like to avoid the crowds – and not just on Black Friday.

Waiter on the Way of Fort Wayne is a restaurant delivery service that lets customers call or go online to place orders. The company targets customers who don’t want to brave the elements or drive across town or simply want to eat at home without hassles associated with dining out.

General Manager Brandi Schorey said the service makes its money from discounts received from area eateries that agree to let Waiter on the Way charge their customers regular prices.

“We’re giving them business that they normally wouldn’t get,” Schorey said, noting that restaurant food delivery businesses exist in other cities as well. “We don’t view (restaurants) as competition. It’s not a cantankerous relationship.”

There are major chains that aren’t convinced it’s in their best interests to allow patrons to order their favorite dishes online from an outside source. Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday and Bob Evans are among those that don’t participate.

Apple Sauce Inc., a franchisee of Applebee’s, doesn’t use delivery services, said Kevin Bennett, director of operations for the company. He said slim profit margins, food quality and image concerns are reasons.

“We used Waiter on the Way in its infancy, but not now,” said Bennett, who oversees 34 Applebee’s in Indiana and Ohio. “I’m not being disparaging, but there are many dynamics to consider.”

One is that delivery services basically represent the restaurants they work for.

“You hope that the food arrives in the same condition it was when it left you,” Bennett said, “but there are no guarantees.”

Schorey says her company has a good track record, but she understands it’s not for everyone.

“We know that there are just some restaurants that aren’t going to use us, and that’s OK,” she said.

In the end, it’s a checkout choice.

Kellie Carpenter is a Fort Wayne mother of two. The cleaning services professional doesn’t play favorites when shopping.

“I shop online and I go to the stores,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes it’s better to just shop on the Internet, so I don’t have to drive across town. I go shopping when shipping costs are going to be high. It just depends.”