Check It Out

`Paper or plastic?' is no longer the most pressing question as customers consider whether to scan their groceries themselves.

February 19, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Passions are running high at your local supermarket.

On the one side are customers like Karen Sutton, 26, who shops at the Whole Foods downtown - but only about once every two weeks when she absolutely has to. The beautiful new store doesn't happen to have any self-scan lanes.

"I would go to the grocery store more often if there was self-checkout," says the University of Maryland medical student. "My refrigerator is bare after 1 1/2 weeks, but it beats waiting in line."

On the other side are customers like Mercy Rock, 46, who shops at Giant and Super Fresh, both of which have do-it-yourself lanes.

"I refuse to use them," the Cockeysville resident says. The technology doesn't scare her; she just likes to interact with a human being. "So many things you're doing yourself these days. They're taking more and more away from the personal touch. Even if there's a long line, I'll wait for a cashier rather than do it myself."

You've probably seen the self-scan lanes. With the help of a computerized voice and pictures on a touch screen, they let you do everything yourself. You scan bar codes and coupons, weigh your produce, pay with credit cards or cash, and bag your order. Built-in security devices help ensure that customers don't cheat. In the Baltimore area, only the Super Fresh and Giant chains have self-checkout lanes, although other food retailers are considering them.

Mark Hamilton, director of customer service at Super Fresh, isn't sure what all the fuss is about.

"We added self-checkout lanes because some customers like having that option," he says, sounding faintly puzzled.

Added is the operative word. Hamilton is standing in the state-of-the-art Super Fresh in Timonium; at least at this store, no lanes with cashiers were replaced with machines. You'll even get human contact here. Smiling "associates" rush up and offer to help if you're a first-time user and will bag for you when the store isn't busy. (Self-checkout is always monitored by someone who can deal with problems.)

"Give self-scan a try," Hamilton says. "If you like it, fine. If it's not something you're comfortable with, [you can go back to a lane with] a cashier."

According to the Food Marketing Institute, 25 percent of food retailers have installed the machines in some stores, at least on a trial basis. By the end of 2004, the trade association estimates, that number will be up to 50 percent. The bottom line is that self-checkout is here to stay.

Why here? Why now? And why so fast?

Partly it was in response to a labor shortage a few years ago. Partly it's that customers are ready for it.

"It's just so easy," says Marshall Thompson, 54, of Glen Arm, who shops in the Giant at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue. "It saves me a lot of time."

In the early '90s, Safeway tested self-scanning in its Greenbelt store but took the machines out because not enough customers were using them. Now, says director of public affairs Greg Ten Eyck, the technology has improved enough that the chain will be taking another look at it.

More important, though, attitudes toward the technology have changed. We've gotten used to pumping our own gas and getting cash from ATMs. It's hard to remember a time when we resented automated teller machines instead of thinking of them as a necessary convenience.

Mike Webster, vice president and general manager of an Atlanta-based producer of self-scan technology, NCR Self-Checkout Solutions, says his company intentionally designed its machines to look and feel like ATMs so customers would be comfortable with them. Apparently it worked.

"The consumer adoption rate for the first five years of self-checkout has been much faster than for the first five years of ATMs," he says. "It's empowering, it's choice, it's convenience. In North America, particularly, people like the control."

Americans are more time-pressed than ever, or at least they think they are. You may not be as good at scanning and bagging as a cashier who does it for a living, but it's not just the actual time in front of the scanner that counts. Self-checkout lines are usually shorter.

On a recent evening when snow was forecast, people stood five- or six-deep at every lane at the Giant in the Rotunda - except the four self-scan lanes where there were no lines at all. (These self-scan lanes did replace four regular lanes at the Giant, but all the lanes were rarely if ever staffed anyway.)

And the self-scan lines tend to move faster. We've all felt lane rage when the customer in front of us slows down the cashier by chatting about her new hairdo. The customer in front of you in a self-checkout lane is probably as interested in getting out of the store quickly as you are.

There are other reasons customers use self-checkout. John Murphy, 45, first tried it when he wanted to buy a banana for lunch in the Towson Super Fresh. "It saved me the embarrassment of paying 35 cents for one banana after standing in line for 10 minutes," he says jokingly.

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