Call it the real express lane: Grocers boost self-checkout

They save employment costs; shoppers (in theory) save time

In central Oklahoma, as in most of the country, competition among grocery stores is intense. And managers look for the slightest advantage to attract shoppers.

Jim Mills hoped to drum up some excitement when he introduced two self-checkout machines at his IGA supermarket in Edmond, Okla., last year.

The devices allow customers to scan, bag, and pay for their groceries without waiting for a cashier.

"We wanted to be the first in Oklahoma to have them," says Mr. Mills, who also installed a self-checkout machine in his Oklahoma City IGA. "From a marketing standpoint, we thought it would make us ... unique."

Mills says the novelty has paid off, and with a few unexpected perks. "We've found that customers really appreciate [the machines'] convenience and speed, and like getting out of the store fast."

Supermarkets across the country are looking for the same edge. About 16 percent of all grocery stores now offer at least one self-checkout lane - double the number from a year ago, according to the Food Marketing Institute in Washington.

Nearly every major supermarket chain will adopt automated machines in the next few years, experts say.

But many warn retailers against abandoning customer interaction altogether. Store checkouts in general, they say, should be designed for every breed of shopper - including those who prefer human help.

Most automated checkouts are used in lanes accepting 15 items or less. Their conveyor belts and bagging areas are slightly smaller than regular checkout areas, and come equipped with a touch-pad computer screen.

Shoppers simply scan the items' bar codes, verify prices, and bag. Fruits and vegetables are a bit more challenging, requiring selection from an on-screen produce menu and use of an electronic scale. (Attendants are usually on hand for limited assistance.)

To pay, customers can usually swipe a credit or debit card, insert cash, use a coupon, or bring a personal check to a nearby clerk.

For those craving control, self-checkout offers clear benefits: enhanced privacy, as well as the opportunity to verify price and to apply a gentle hand in bagging.

But Paul Denimarck says supermarkets' savings in labor costs explain the devices' quick acceptance nationwide.

"Even with the economy cooling a bit, there's still a scarcity of labor to run the store," says Mr. Denimarck, director of self-checkout systems for PSC, a Portland, Ore.-based manufacturer. "Most states ... have had a more difficult time hiring baggers and cashiers."

Self-checkout is new to most supermarkets, but shoppers have been gaining autonomy for a number of years.

Gayle Marco, an associate professor of marketing at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, suggests that food shoppers are already accustomed to checkout innovations.

She says customers now bring their own bags, bag their own groceries, and independently weigh and apply a price to produce. At Sam's Club warehouses, members are often checked-out by a roaming clerk with a hand-held scanner.

She mostly credits the latest evolution in checkout to the changing rhythm of Americans' shopping habits.

"People are making three trips to the grocery store a week," says Ms. Marco. "A lot of them are buying just a few prepackaged items and want to get out fast without the hassle."

Security advances have been indispensable. Retailers can now entrust a shopper with scanning and payment, without placing a security guard over their shoulder in the process.

Atlanta-based NCR Corp. has shipped more than 1,000 devices that use various security tools, according to checkout manager Mike Webster. Safeguards include a video camera that shows a real-time image of the customer on the device's display screen.

The checkout is also equipped with a "smart scale" that can verify the weight of a bagged item after it was just scanned, preventing shoppers from scanning an apple, for example, and bagging a 10-pound turkey.

Toward 'passive scanning'

All the advances, experts believe, presage an era when technology will make grocery shopping faster and more flexible than ever.

"Passive scanning" is the ideal. The technology would allow customers to wheel their shopping cart out the door as radio waves instantaneously scan each item, automatically debiting the customers' accounts.

According to Michael Sansalo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, passive scanning could be mainstream in 5 to 10 years. In Europe, cart attachments already allow shoppers to scan individual items as they go.

Mr. Sansalo hopes the emerging technologies, combined, will ease the tedium of checking out.

"Most of the shopping experience is actually a lot of fun," says Sansalo. "The negative part of the experience is having to stand in line and wait to buy [items]."

A real speed advantage?

But for now, the actual time customers spend in the grocery store may not drop much. Store managers say self-checkouts offer peace of mind for hands-on shoppers, but little in the way of time savings.

"It's a matter of perception," says Bernard Rogan, spokesperson for the Shaw's supermarket chain, which offers the devices in various stores. "People have more control, so they feel they're going faster. At the very best, it's a dead heat with a checker."

Chris Sweetser agrees. The senior at Boston University has used the "Xpress" machines at his local Star Market for more than a month.

"It takes less time," Mr. Sweetser says. "Or at least they make if feel like it does."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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