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Supermarket cash registers that talk

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 1983



Chicago

The shopper smiles contentedly as her weekly supply of groceries is whisked over an electronic scanner at the checkout counter. The chunk of black and white lines on most jars and packages triggers a clearly female but rather monotonous voice, which announces the price of each item and the total.

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Most of the nation's supermarkets are looking increasingly to high technology for help with everything from keeping inventory to speeding up the checkout line.

The newest addition to the grocery world's electronics revolution is the ''talking'' cash register, or counter voice box, which ticks off prices and even announces such details as how much change is due the customer. Jewel Food Stores put a number of these talkers in its Chicago supermarkets last year on a far swifter schedule than its officials had planned.

''We got very positive feedback from customers in one store where we'd tried it as an experiment,'' explains Jane Armstrong, Jewel vice-president for consumer affairs. ''It's another way of assuring shoppers that the price and count are accurate. This way they don't have to watch the (cash register) screen for prices. They can watch their kids or get their money out.''

But not all comment is favorable. Some customers argue that the system will only lead to higher prices, and some clerks complain about the drone of the mechanical voice.

The supplier of the ''Positalker'' system found in Jewel and about 200 other supermarkets around the country is the National Semiconductor Corporation.

''The sound is a computerized copy of the human voice - it's as natural as we can get it,'' explains James Colletti, district sales manager in the Chicago area office. ''Every study I've seen shows about four of every five shoppers favor it. They seem to feel more secure getting three-way feedback - a physical receipt, a visual display of prices, and an audio rundown. Because they hear it and watch it, they tend to feel it's faster and more accurate.''

Many consumers apparently welcome the added punch of the voice at the checkout counter for those very reasons. il14l,0,16l,6pBut shoppers in the Lexington, Mass., market of Stop & Shop Company, where the system was tried experimentally last year, told store officials that they felt the system increased food costs and gave no added help. Stop & Shop pulled the Positalker system out of the Lexington store in August and currently has no further installation plans.

But it is clerks, who must spend hours beside the voice boxes, who are often the least enthusiastic. Some see the audio rundown as another element of computerization that could take their jobs away. A late-evening visitor to one Chicago market carrying the system found most counter voice boxes had been turned off.

''The voice sounds too much like a computer,'' one clerk explained. ''After about an hour of hearing '39 cents, 58 cents, $1.52,' it really begins to get to you.''

Computers first hit the nation's supermarkets in a big way in the late 1970s with the introduction of electronic scanning systems at the checkout counter. It produced for the first time a receipt listing not only prices but whether the item was celery, applesauce, or cereal.

Currently 6,466 supermarkets, or about one of every five in the United States , are equipped with scanners. The number, increasing by some 100 stores a month, is expected to reach 10,000 by 1985, according to the Food Marketing Institute. The great concern among consumer groups when computers moved in was that individual price labels on items would be scrapped. Retailers had said as much, stressing that they could save enormously on labor costs by confining price marking to shelves. They argued that consumers wouldn't miss the old system and would have the added benefit of an electronically produced receipt that matched prices and purchases for the first time.

A few supermarket chains have ceased stamping prices on individual boxes and jars, yet have managed to keep customers happy. Washington, D.C.-based Giant Food Inc., which was the first chain (1979) to have scanners in all its stores, is a case in point. The firm estimated that it could save as much as $18 million a year - equal to about 1 percent of its sales - in labor costs. Giant teamed the move with a massive customer-education campaign. ''Customer acceptance has been tremendous,'' insists spokesman Barry Scher.

Still, consumer resistance to removing prices on each item remains strong. Seven states and many cities such as Chicago legally bar such a move. Another 21 states are considering similarly restrictive laws.