Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Call It the Real Express Lane: Grocers Boost Self-Checkout ; They Save Employment Costs; Shoppers (in Theory) Save Time

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Call It the Real Express Lane: Grocers Boost Self-Checkout ; They Save Employment Costs; Shoppers (in Theory) Save Time

Article excerpt

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. …

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