(Sept. 8) If you’re like most retailers, you hate Tuesday nights. That’s when you have to painstakingly change the shelf prices on the 100 or more items featured in your weekly newspaper ad or circular. The process of adding new tags and changing tags from last week’s sale items is time consuming, often costing the equivalent of 24 to 36 hours in labor, not to mention the cost of materials.

The good news is that you may not have to face terrible Tuesdays much longer, thanks to technology from companies like NCR Corp., Atlanta, and IBM Corp., White Plains, N.Y. In fact, some grocery departments already experience the ease of electronic shelf labels, and the process is making headway into produce, as well.

NCR describes electronic shelf labels as “digital tags that can be attached to shelves or other store fixtures, where they display merchandise pricing and other information in large, clear characters.”

A digital system allows you to change shelf prices from a central location, like a corporate headquarters, via computer. There is no need to physically change paper or plastic price stickers.

The system has two big advantages: First, it’s a money and time saver since it eliminates the expenses of labor and materials; and, second, because the system is tied into the electronic cash registers, the same data is programmed to scan at checkout what appears on the shelf. It virtually eliminates errors at the checkout.


Knowlan’s Super Markets Inc., Vadnais Heights, Minn., uses electronic shelf labels from NCR on all its value-added products that come with Universal Product Codes, says Ed Doud, director of retail technology. That includes packaged salads, dressings, baby-peeled carrots, sprouts and mushrooms.

“Any kind of packaged item in a refrigerated shelving set lends itself well to (electronic shelf labels),” he says.

For sets with overhead signs, the stores continue to use traditional plastic sign kits that include price and nutrition information. “Those items don’t lend themselves as well to (electronic shelf labels),” Doud says.

Knowlan’s started using electronic shelf labels four years ago in two stores and now has the system in five of its seven stores. The labels are integrated with the cash register scanning system and compare the shelf prices with those in the registers once every hour, Doud says.

K-VA-T Food Stores Inc., Abingdon, Va., which operates 85 Food City stores, also uses electronic shelf labels for bagged salads, precut produce and packaged mushrooms, says Mike Tipton, director of produce operations.

The system is not used in places where misting might damage it and, so far, it’s not used with bulk items, primarily because the stores did not have a track above the produce cases in which electronic shelf labels could be installed. Tipton says the company’s new stores are compatible with electronic shelf labels.

K-VA-T has used the digital labels for four years. The system flashes the price of items that are on sale, and electronic shelf labels are supplemented by shelf talkers that present additional product information.

Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc., East Bridgewater, Mass., has equipped two stores in Connecticut with electronic shelf labels from NCR. Shaw’s operates 185 Shaw’s and Star Markets throughout New England.

Shaw’s installed 20,000 NCR RealPrice tags in a 65,000-square-foot store that opened in late January in Stratford, Conn. A store in Darien, Conn., has been outfitted with 12,000 tags.


A Shaw’s spokesman says the stores have enjoyed decreased labor costs, more accurate pricing and greater customer satisfaction as result of its digital labeling system.

Tipton of K-Va-T stores also believes in the benefits of electronic shelf labels.

“You push a button and change (the prices) all at one time,” he says.

And don’t overlook the savings in material costs. Tipton says the stores typically print 800 to 1,000 price tags every week. At 10 cents apiece, that process is a costly one.

It’s hard to pinpoint the cost of electronic shelf label systems, since their cost can vary depending on the system you buy, what features you want and how many you buy. But NCR says the devices cost $5-6 apiece installed.

Doud estimates that the Knowlan’s system pays for itself in 12 to 18 months.

But no system is perfect.

Tipton says the electronic devices in his stores can’t be moved as easily as traditional plastic shelf tags. “It takes a screwdriver to move them,” he says.