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Grocery stores and customers try to keep up with self-checkout

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 10:28 AM

So there you are, with one last move to make before you exit the supermarket. It is 6:48 on a weeknight. You've got bok choy, fresh fish, a six-pack of seltzer, frozen vegetables, juice and a week's worth of pet food and yogurt in a hand basket getting heavier by the minute. To your left: self-checkout lanes, each engaged with a customer. To your right: express lanes whose lines are two and three deep. Beyond them, shoppers with full carts await their turn at the staffed checkouts.

Maybe you choose self-checkout because you think it will help you roll out fastest. In truth, however, a quick completion will depend on the store (see a comparison of local stores) and what you are buying - as well as the competence of the self-checker ahead of you and how touchy the system is. What you want to avoid is The Voice ("Help is on the way!") and The Dreaded Intervention.

Food retailers know that this precise moment in the shopping experience is a make-or-break one. It is why a 2009 survey of more than 13,000 grocery stores across the country found that almost 86 percent of them had at least one express lane and at least one self-checkout lane. In the Washington area, the number of self-checkouts is more likely to be two or four, with at least that many express lanes tailored to fit the needs of a closely monitored clientele.

To keep the egress smooth, shoppers need to assess the situation each time they are at the point of purchase. Call it profiling; the food marketing industry does, without guilt.

"You've got to make judgments," says Glenn Gibson of Magruder's. His title is vice president and chief information officer, but he is more of a supermarket technology guru, having spent 30 years in the field. He's responsible for setting up the self-service lanes in Magruder's area stores, beginning in 2003.

"Is it any different than when you look to see which cashier's line is moving faster? If you're behind one person with four or five produce items that need to be looked up and weighed, or there's a distracted parent with kids in front of you, the process is going to take longer, even if it is self-checkout."

Becky Weise, 37, is hooked on using the self-checkout with a Scan It! hand-held device at the Giant in Bethesda near her home. "I shop more here because of it," she says. "I cannot stand lines, and I don't even want to be seen. And now the computer voice isn't quite as yell-y. They've made her more friendly, I think."

Get in, get out: For those who appreciate self-checkout's dangling carrots of speed and efficiency, getting hung up for no apparent reason is especially frustrating. Operator error. Epic fail. Make the flashing light stop.

The fact that technophiles and young people are naturally more comfortable with touch screens and talking computers doesn't necessarily skew self-checkout demographics. Gibson has witnessed older customers employ a certain coyness. "I see it in the Rockville store all the time," he says. "The old folks don't want to wait in the long lines in manned checkout, so they go to the self-checkout, knowing that someone will come over and help them. God love 'em."

In the United States, grocery store self-checkout systems are made by a few large automated manufacturers (IBM, NCR); the machines, which can cost from $30,000 to $60,000 apiece, are less cumbersome and more programmable with each new generation. Retailers can build in parameters that reduce glitches and the need for employee intervention, but the degree of their success depends on how much effort is put in upfront.

That fine-tuning will go a long way toward customer satisfaction. Negative feedback about self-service checkout in Washington area grocery chains has the tenor of toddler ("want to do it myself!") or whine of a consumer engine ("no place to put my large order in a small kiosk.") Some comments rue the decline of personal intervention.

When the system reads a UPC, or bar code, it registers the name of the product and checks it against a certain weight range the item is supposed to fall within. Fresh produce creates challenges; a five-pound bag of carrots might weigh as much as 7 1/2 pounds if the vegetable is fresh and full of moisture, Gibson says. Even the whoosh of air from a constantly opening front door or the condensation on a gallon of milk carted around for 30 minutes (increasing its weight) can stop a straightforward checkout. The more errors generated, the slower the process will be, especially when one employee is in charge of monitoring more than two or three self-check lanes.

Safeway was an early adopter in the Washington area. "We experimented in the early '90s at our Greenbelt store," says Greg TenEyck, longtime company spokesman. "We weren't pleased. There has to be a decent return on investment, because it's expensive to put that technology into a store." The self-check system now in Safeway stores has a reputation for being a little slow but fairly easy to go back a step to correct a hang-up.

Interestingly, the grocery chain known for its customer service is cautious about self-checkout. Wegmans did not install its first unit, in its headquarters city of Rochester, until 2008, says Jo Natale, director of media relations. "We prefer the personal approach. The checkout experience has always been highly rated by our customers." Its Hunt Valley store near Baltimore has self-checkout lanes, and units will be installed in the Dulles store soon. But the Woodmore Wegmans that opened last month in Prince George's County does not. Whole Foods Market recently replaced the self-check lanes at its Reston store with full-service lanes to accommodate increased volume.

You might say express lanes begat the self-checkout movement. In the late '80s and early '90s, supermarket sales had been on the decline, says John Stanton, a professor at St. Joseph's University Academy of Food Marketing in Philadelphia. People were going to convenience stores, especially for everyday items such as milk and eggs. "Virtually all the changes we've seen in the past 30 or 40 years have been in response to the added pressure on women - you know, when they were 'liberated,'" he says with a wry tone. "Now they are a working, time-pressed group of shoppers."

To arrive at the right limit for express lane purchases, industry analysts averaged the number of items bought per customer at convenience stores and adjusted slightly upward for grocery stores. The limits are now so universally accepted that customers are the ones most likely to enforce the rules. Cashiers won't do much more than scowl their way through a larger-than-recommended order.

Of course, just about the time we are all comfortable with self-checkout that is bug-free, it will be time for the Next Big Thing: radio frequency identification, or RFID.

It promises to be the EZ Pass of grocery shopping. Stanton says a form of the electromagnetic wave technology, in which every item in the store would have its own unique microchip, has been around since the '60s. The chips will be small enough to be lodged in the ink on a package label. A full cart's worth of groceries will be scanned by a set of sensor gates in the time it takes to push it through, with a receipt printed for you as you leave. Videos on YouTube make it seem like an almost cheeky way to roll.

"I think we're within five years; 10 at the outside," Gibson says. "It was tested in a chain in South Africa over 15 years ago, when the price point of embedding a chip was prohibitively high. It's coming down now." The chips are already used on large pallets of products that come into grocery stores. To make it a reality, a Giant- or Safeway-size store's 45,000 to 60,000 items would have to be chip-labeled, and produce would have to be weighed and tagged by customers along the lines of Giant's current Weigh It! produce scales, which print out a bar code sticker. But that might be more acceptable than attempts a few years ago to pay for groceries with an RFID-implanted cellphone.

Chevy Chase Market gave the cellphone idea a six-month shot in 2006. "I think we were a little ahead of our time with the mobile line," says co-owner Kevin Kirsch. "If you had the correct type of phone, you could just wave it at the scanner. The technology we tried was not the one that triumphed. A little company like us can be flexible to try something new. We don't put self-checkout in the store, because every time you do, someone loses a job. That's not us. We don't do express lanes, either. Every lane should be an express lane. You shouldn't have to wait."

But chances are pretty good that between now and the dead of winter, you will have to wait. So keep these strategic tips in mind when you go the self-checkout route:

- The fewer items the better, unless the items in your cart have been pre-scanned with a hand-held device such as Giant's Scan It!

- Too many heavy items on a conveyor belt will cause it to overload and halt. Four 12-packs of soda are okay, but five 50-pound bags of dog food can cause a temporary crash.

- Once something goes on the belt or scale platform, don't take it off until you've paid.

- Be careful not to plonk down a purse, a wallet or even your car keys near any part of the checkout that weighs items. That can cause the system to calibrate incorrectly or halt.

- Booze is a no-go. Buying beer or wine requires age verification that, as of now, might mean a store employee must step in.

- Packaged firewood and large pots in plants are often too bulky or lack UPC labels.

- Information for seasonal or specialty items might not be loaded in the system. You might be able to double-check before getting hung up in mid-order by finding a scanning station in the store to check the item's UPC.

And finally, no current system can account for the differences in weight of a bag made from cloth or recycled material, Gibson says. So if you bring your own bags from home, don't try to fill them until your receipt is in hand. Forget, and brace yourself for The Voice.

Have you embraced self-checkout at grocery stores? Take our poll: washingtonpost.com/allwecaneat.

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