Although Shelia Dwyer had a little trouble weighing her tomatoes, she and other shoppers, who tested new automated checkout lanes at a Greenbelt Safeway store were impressed.
"It was pretty fun," said Dwyer at yesterday's unveiling of the CheckRobot automated checkout machines.
Safeway is the first grocer in the mid-Atlantic to offer customers the opportunity to check out their own groceries on the store's scanners, which use laser beams to read an item's price from a barcode printed on each product's label.
If the machines can speed the checkout process, Safeway "will definitely consider putting them in other stores," said Don Gates, senior vice president of Safeway's Eastern Division.
Safeway has added the four automated lanes to the 12 conventional lanes at its Greenway Center store. Customers who enter the automated lanes will scan their goods and then place them on a conveyor belt to be bagged by a Safeway employee. When the process is complete, the customer takes a receipt from the checkout machine and pays at one of two cashier booths nearby.
"We are anxious to see how our customers respond to the opportunity to scan their own groceries," said Gates. "In other parts of the country where these automated checkout machines have been tested, they have won the hearts of many shoppers."
They seemed to have won the heart of Vandy Bauer, who exclaimed, "Isn't that amazing!" several times while scanning her own groceries yesterday.
But although the College Park woman said she thinks the new lanes are great, she added that she missed "the personal contact" with a cashier at a conventional checkout lane.
Gloria Swanson, who had the largest cart of groceries, said the automatic scanners would be "good for fast checkouts, but I don't know if I'd want to do my weekly shopping on it."
For the most part, shoppers found the CheckRobot units easy to operate. At a touch of a button, the image of a woman appears on a color video screen at the front of the lane and explains how to use the machine.
For checking out produce, the most commonly purchased produce items are pictured on two rows of buttons below the video screen. After placing the produce on the scale attached to the scanner, the customer pushes the appropriate button.
If a produce item isn't pictured on one of the buttons, the customer has the screen display a list of other produce items and touches the screen where the proper item appears. The machine records the price and the item can then be placed on the belt.
As customers scan items, the video screen displays a picture of a receipt showing the prices and descriptions of the items. A computerized voice also confirms the prices.
When a customer is finished, the touch of a button will display a total on the screen and will produce a receipt at the end of the lane. The receipt and any coupons a customer may have are taken to the nearby cashier.
The automatic lanes discourage shoplifting with a security system over the conveyor belt. The system recognizes when something hasn't been through the price scanner. It can also recognize when an item is different from the item that was just scanned. If a customer tries to slip a different item onto the belt more than once, the lamp identifying the number of the checkout counter will flash, summoning a store employee.
Dwyer's problem came when she didn't place her tomatoes together on the scanner/scale. The conveyor belt security system detected more tomatoes than the scale, so it sent the tomatoes back to the scanner.
On the East Coast, the scanners are already in use in supermarkets in New Jersey, Florida, and Virginia. The product has been on the market for about a year, and is "very successful," according to Scott Sloan, vice president of sales and marketing for CheckRobot, a Deerfield Beach, Fla., company.
"We've got about 70 lanes at this time, and we'll double that this year," he said.
Jim Roberts, public relations manager for Safeway's Eastern Division, said the supermarket chain has "no definite time frame" for when the scanners will be available in the 12 Baltimore area stores. But Sloan said the scanners are typically tested for about five months before being expanded throughout a chain.
"I can tell you that [an expansion] has happened in every installation we've gone into," he said.
Even the checkers at the Greenbelt Safeway seemed impressed with the scanners, although Brian Barbour, a Safeway checker, says there were a few who worried that the machines would eventually make traditional cashiers obsolete.
"We've been convinced that we're not going to lose any jobs to these things," he said. "The union's pretty strong. I think it's a pretty good idea as far as offering another option to the customer. These still take a checker to every two machines."
Officials at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 were unavailable for comment.