As grocery retailers chase speed and efficiency through technology, a few are bucking the trend by launching "slow lanes" for those who are not capable of blitzing through a self-checkout.
Maiya Takizawa, a regional supermarket chain in the northeastern Japan city of Takizawa, has taken up the cause for senior citizens and those who are not interested in high-paced modern life, with those who have special needs a particular focus.
Recently, 84-year-old wheelchair user Yoriko Sakurano, with the help of a volunteer carer, made a trip to the Maiya Takizawa outlet in Iwate Prefecture, where she can have an enjoyable shopping experience free of confusion and embarrassment.
As a person with dementia, the last thing Sakurano needs is pressure from a queue of impatient toe-tappers behind her. Fortunately, at Maiya Takizawa, she is able to take as much time as she wants during her transaction in the dedicated slow checkout lane.
Sakurano's husband Masayuki, 74, knows that shopping is one of his wife's favorite activities and praises the local retailer for being a dementia-friendly business that allows her to hold on to her cherished independence.
"I'm very grateful that this (slow service) allows my wife to keep a smile on her face," he said.
Maiya Takizawa introduced the relaxed checkout lane in 2019. It was Toshiaki Konno, a local private practice physician, who came up with the idea and broached the subject with the company's head of operations.
"I heard stories from dementia patients about how they had negative shopping experiences and how they were discouraged by family members from going to physical stores. But they wanted to go," Konno said.
"Women who used to be housewives in particular experience a sense of loss when they are robbed of that role. Shopping improves patients' confidence and helps stabilize symptoms," he said.
Although the current best-practice retail strategy focuses on getting as many customers through a store as quickly as possible, with rapidly aging populations in general, and particularly in superaged Japan, a slow lane serves as a community service.
Japan is aging fast, with its population the oldest in the world. As of 2021, 29.1 percent of the population was 65 or older.
By age group, the number of people aged 80 or older totaled 12.06 million, up 460,000 from a year earlier, and that of those aged 90 or older reached 25.9 million, including 80,000 centenarians.
With figures like that, the need for slow lanes will only increase, but even the existing ones are not always in operation.
The slow lane at Maiya Takizawa is open for one to two hours every Thursday afternoon.
Maiya Takizawa further raised their senior-friendliness a notch by improving in-store displays and signage, using larger, easy-to-read fonts and clear images.
More than 10 volunteers signed up as shopping assistants to support customers with food shopping and other grocery-related tasks.
Other stores in Japan are following suit and looking to do more to cater for less-able customers, with places like Hiroshima-based shopping center operator Izumi opening slow lanes in 64 stores, and the consumer cooperative society in Fukui Prefecture doing the same in all 10 of its branches.
Minako Shimizu, a store manager in a 7-Eleven convenience store in Kyoto, adopted the slow shopping option because she "couldn't pretend not to notice" the struggles of her senior customers, some of whom are familiar faces from her neighborhood.
Because she saw some of the challenges people with dementia faced in-store, the 59-year-old Shimizu wanted to better understand and support customers with impaired cognitive function. She and all the staff in her store received dementia training.
At her store, the staffers escort older adults who need help with shopping, use gentle, respectful language when customers with dementia exhibit behaviors that may seem confusing, and use a handheld price scanner for a smooth checkout process.
"Self-scan machines can be intimidating for elderly shoppers so if they look panicked we make sure we interact with them and calm them. We operate in close proximity to local communities so I hope we can continue to give customers the service they need," Shimizu said.