One local supermarket in my area recently introduced a new shopping concept: a scan-and-bag-as-you-go system. With this voluntary system, as customers enter the store they scan their store card, and then take a hand-held scanner and a supply of bags. Each item is scanned as it’s selected, and then placed in a bag. At checkout time, the customer scans his card at the register, the order comes up on the screen, the customer pays and is on his way.

Being the gadget geeks that we are, my husband and I decided to take the new system for a spin. Right from the start the experience felt awkward. Sure, using the scanner is sort of fun on the first few items, but when you’re trying to select bagels using tissue paper while holding the display case door open, you discover that the scanner is taking up a much needed hand.

So, I alternately tried propping it in the shopping cart’s cup holder, putting it in my coat pocket or just putting it in the cart.

All produce has to be weighed on an electronic scale that prints out a sticker with a bar code, which is, in turn, scanned. Before trying this system, I rarely weighed produce. I just selected as much as I thought I needed and moved on. Produce prices usually aren’t an issue, so previously I wasn’t aware of how much the fruits and veggies in my cart cost. Now I am.

Then there’s the matter of bagging. Customers have the usual choice of paper or plastic bags. If you choose plastic for the convenient handles, you quickly discover how inconvenient it is to try and open these bags, which tend to stick together, in the middle of a busy store aisle. Paper bags stand up nicely in the cart, but lack the handles that make getting the groceries into the house easier.

All of the above might sound like a rant about a bunch of trivial annoyances, but the whole experience made me realize just how ingrained our shopping habits are. We develop a routine for the way that we move through a store, select the products that we need, pay and get out of there. Introducing a new dynamic like this system throws the routine off, and the experience is not especially pleasant.

Store management evidently recognized that fact and took steps to address it. They’ve stationed employees near the point where shoppers pick up the scanners and at the checkouts to provide assistance. They also offer an incentive to try the system again: a discount off the total bill for the first three times a shopper uses the system, and the discount increases each time.

When shopping habits within a particular store are that ingrained, it’s no wonder that it’s a challenge to get people to go out of their way to shop at a farmers’ market or farmstand. Farmers involved in direct marketing know this and are always working to find incentives for consumers to change their shopping habits.

High-quality products, unusual varieties, educational information and a friendly atmosphere, along with the knowledge that buying your products supports the local economy and helps the environment, are the kind of incentives that bring customers back to a farmstand or farmers’ market. Other typical tactics like coupons, events and special promotions help too, of course.

Habits are hard to change, but if a new experience is pleasant, consumers are more likely to want to repeat it. Conversely, if something new is unpleasant, awkward or uncomfortable, people will want to go back to the old way of doing things. That’s just human nature.

The new scan-and-bag-as-you-go system felt like trying to drive on the left in a foreign country. It just felt wrong. I’m sure it will get more comfortable for people the more they use it. They’ll find ways to make the process work for them, and the store will probably find ways to make it easier for folks. The question is how many people will keep using it until it feels comfortable.

That’s the challenge for farm marketers: to keep new customers coming back until shopping at your place feels comfortable. You want to become their new old habit.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns by this author online at