Boston — Waiting in line at the supermarket is not one of life's thrilling events. The scenery runs to People magazine and packs of twin-blade razors, the company is generally not talkative, and some law of nature holds that the cashier you pick must always be the slowest one.
But this bastion of boredom is changing. Many supermarkets now speed their line with "scanners," machines that read prices from the Universal Product Code stamped on each item. The checkout stand of the future may have cash registers capable of reading prices around corners -- and TV screens to dazzle a captive audience with video-taped ads.
Supermarket scanners have had a long and checkered career. First introduced in the early 1970s, they were plagued by technical problems and organized consumer resistance. Shoppers feared unit pricing, where each item is individually stamped with its cost, would be replaced by a single price posted on the shelf. Six states enacted laws mandating unit pricing; similar national legislation was introduced in Congress, but did not pass.
Continued use of unit pricing has eased consumer group fears. According to the Food Marketing Institute, 2,842 stores in the US and Canada have scanners. The Washington, D.C., chain Giant Foods and Florida-based Publix stores have stocked all their supermarkets with scanners. Others using them include Winn Dixie, Kroger, Safeway, and Alpha Beta.
One industry observer estimates the number of scanner-automated supermarkets is growing at 13 percent a year.
"I'd say in five years everybody will have them," says Food Marketing Institute researcher Jacqui Lyles.
NCR, with 1,116 installations, is king of the scanner production business. IBM machines are used in 865 stores. Other firms in this highly competitive market are National Semiconductor, with 533; Sweda International, with 174; and Dataterminal, with 148.
Scanners automatically tote up the price of each item by reading the grid of black bars, the Universal Product Code, now found on everything from frozen foods to magazines. But the goods must be precisely aligned for a scanner to read each UPC correctly.
To solve this problem and speed traffic flow, IBM late last month announced holography for grocery stores. In one of the first commercial applications for this space-age technology, light from a laser, with all its wavelengths marching in step, is broken up and scattered into many small bits. Like waves bouncing off a breakwater, this creates a three-dimensional pattern of ripples. When the black bars of a UPC are passed through this light pattern they interrupt the ripples in a particular way -- which the scanner notes and chalks up as "Pinata brand, frozen burritos, 39," for instance.
"The light reaches out and wraps around an object," says IBM spokesman Theo Chisholm.
Installed under a glass plate on the checkout counter, the holographic scanner can ring up your bill as the clerk scoots objects backward toward the bagger. The process is faster than normal scanners or cash registers. It's also easy enough so the cashier can snap gum and chat with the person behind you while working.
Still, holographs won't eliminate lines entirely.
Leave it to Madison Avenue to try to sell you one thing while you're buying something else. On Dec. 1, On-Line Media Inc. launched a trial run of video advertising for supermarket checkouts. Twenty-seven stores in New York, Chicago , and Los Angeles have mounted color TVs over their registers. The screens show a soundless loop of special ads featuring the products of Quaker Oats, Colgate-Palmolive, Schick, Campbell Soups, and NBC, among others.
"We're interrupting pure consumer boredom," says Ransel N. Potter, On-Line senior vice-president.
Stores that use On-Line's ads will be paid $6 for every 1,000 customers through the line. Advertisers will pay for three, five, or ten second spots. On-Line's research has clocked the average shopper's waiting time as 6 1/2 minutes -- so after six minutes the loop will begin repeating itself.
Since supermarket traffic patterns are more carefully planned than that of an interstate highway, the screens will also grab the attention of shoppers moving through the store.