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People often think back fondly to the past, when the pace of life seemed somehow slower, less frenetic, and more enjoyable because of it.

The unstoppable march of technology seems geared to one thing – getting everything done faster and more efficiently, but is that necessarily better?

Nowhere is this technology-driven push for speed more sharply felt than at the supermarket checkout. For years supermarkets have, understandably, responded to surveys which showed shoppers’ biggest bugbear was having to queue at the checkout.

Solutions have included high-tech scanners to instantly read product barcodes, self-service checkouts and ‘fast lanes’ for people with only a few items. All of these have undoubtedly speeded up the checkout process. At some discount supermarkets it has become like an Olympic sport trying to keep up with the checkout staff, desperately shoveling your purchases back into your trolley as they fly across the scanner to an incessant ‘beep-beep-beep’ which only ends with an impersonal “cash of card?”

Rumour has it that checkout staff at some supermarkets are under pressure to hit targets of scanning a thousand items per hour – that’s almost 17 per minute! It might not be true, but it certainly feels like you’ve just run a 100-metre sprint as you wheel your trolley away to begin packing your bags properly.

But the point is, not everyone wants this full throttle and ultra-efficient approach. Some people – actually quite a lot of people ­– would like shopping to be a relaxed, friendly, personal experience, paced to meet their own needs. Naturally this tends to be older people, who perhaps have more time to spare and would appreciate the personal touch, which could well include a friendly chat at the checkout.

Now a new report from researchers at the University of Hertfordshire suggests supermarkets could be missing a trick by failing to cater for this sizeable and growing proportion of the population. It suggests that supermarkets could set up designated ‘slow checkouts’ for people who don’t want to feel rushed and pressured, but would like to take their time and maybe enjoy a friendly chat as part of the checkout experience.

The researchers point out that for many people, who perhaps live alone or feel isolated, the supermarket checkout offers an opportunity for some valuable social interaction. And which customer is more likely to return – the one who has enjoyed a friendly chat at the checkout, or the one who feels they have been rushed through like some sort of necessary inconvenience?

In fact, the researchers go further, suggesting supermarkets could do more to target promotions at older shoppers, perhaps encouraging them to shop at quieter times of the week. One major DIY chain already does this, offering a 10% discount to older shoppers on a particular day of the week. Will any of the big supermarkets follow suit?

Currently supermarkets tend to focus their special offers and promotions on ‘family shoppers’ doing ‘the big shop’, offering discounts on ‘multibuy’, ‘two-for-one’ and other bulk buy deals. These might not appeal to older people who don’t need to buy in bulk or don’t spend as much as a family would.

The study found that some older shoppers actually feel ‘disenfranchised’ by such offers, as if the supermarkets didn’t want their custom. Some older people preferred to buy in limited amounts so that it was easier to carry their shopping home and there was no waste, but doing this excluded them from most of the special offers and discounts.

The report found that: “In-store marketing campaigns targeted specifically at older people are likely to be well-received. Encouraging older people to shop at quieter times of the week, by introducing special offers for the over 60s during specific time periods, could make the supermarket a less stressful and more enjoyable environment.”

Other high street retailers could also do more to appeal to older shoppers, according to the report. Simple things like providing seating where shoppers can take a short break and more customer toilets could all make shopping a more pleasurable and less pressurized experience for older shoppers.

As Britain’s ageing population continues to grow, maybe it is time the retail trade began to look seriously at how it caters to the needs of older shoppers. In today’s big superstores, surely there is room to meet everyone’s needs?

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