Kroger's Secret Checkstand Codes Aren't Fooling Customers, But Maybe It Won't Hurt To Play Along

Yes, customers really will pay attention to in-store electronic signs—especially if they're not supposed to. In a Reuters news story this week, Kroger CFO Mike Schlotman said 2,200 of the grocery chain's 3,600 stores have installed video screens to alert associates when more checkout lanes should be opened up. The screens, which display three numbered balls, are supposed to use a secret code to show how many checkstands should be open. But some shoppers have cracked the code, Schlotman said, and now complain to associates that, for example, there should be 11 lanes open because the screens say so.

But did anyone really think customers wouldn't catch on? There's a long tradition of retailers trying to slip secrets-in-plain-sight past customers on coupons, receipts or in-store displays. It never worked before, and with fanatical shoppers now constantly comparing notes on the Internet, a cracked code is practically guaranteed to become widely known very quickly. Then again, maybe treating this stuff like a treasure hunt can actually make customers feel like they have more control over their shopping. In that case, it's fine for retailers to play the secrets game—so long as no one seriously thinks the "secret" can be kept.