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Five-item self-checkout: How long does it take?

By Jane Touzalin and Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 10:43 AM

How easy is it to get in and out using the self-checkout lanes at various Washington-area grocery stores? We sampled them at random times over the past month, checking out the same five items: three limes, a pound of fresh salmon fillet, a can of chickpeas, a quart of milk and a 12-pack of soda.

Self-checkout expert Glenn Gibson of Magruder's says with that shopping list, a customer should expect to done in under two minutes from the time the automated system says "Welcome. . . ."

Results are listed in alphabetical order:

Bloom

At 11 a.m. on a Friday, the store near Fairfax City was nearly devoid of shoppers, so there wasn't much action in the four regular checkout lanes and three self-checkout lanes. The store had no express lanes, but it helps hasten shopping during busier times by providing a few short-term parking spaces close to the building that were labeled "Quick Shop 20 Minute Parking."

Most shoppers seemed to be older than 50. Only four (two women including me, two men) used the self-checkout lanes, maybe because with so few customers there were no lines to wait in. One of the three machines wasn't in service, but the outage didn't cause problems because demand was so low.

All of us who used the self-check machines had from two to five items. One of us, a woman probably in her 70s, had to get help from the attendant because there was a problem with a price (not because the shopper didn't know how to use the machine). I punched the stopwatch button on my phone just before punching the "start" button on the self-check machine and, without hurrying, had bagged my five items and pulled the receipt from the machine in 1 minute 42 seconds.

The procedure for the limes seemed to be better than the one in Harris Teeter (see below), where if the bar-code sticker has fallen off the produce you have a couple of fairly irritating methods of identifying it and checking it out. Here, there were photos of produce you could select, but the really helpful feature was an alphabetical list across the bottom of the screen where I touched "L" and got photos of all the L produce; then I touched a photo of limes. Then I had to enter the quantity.

At that point, the Harris Teeter machine makes you place the bag of limes on the scanner, presumably so it can double-check the item. The more trusting Bloom machine let me put the limes right into my shopping bag.

- J.T.

Giant

During the weekdays and weekends, the Westbard Avenue Giant in Bethesda is always busy. It has a total of 19 lanes: two short self-checkouts, five conveyor-belt self-checkouts, two express lanes and 12 manned checkouts.

At 3 p.m. on a Saturday, the lanes with cashiers were not all occupied, but the ones that were had large orders to process. Most of the self-check lanes had a single customer at them; all but one of these were men who appeared to be middle-aged with an average of three to six items. One awaited intervention from an employee ("I don't know why; I can't get through without one item giving me trouble"). The woman had more than 12 items but had used a hand-held scanner, so she zipped through a short self-checkout lane without having to handle any items in her rolling hand basket.

I chose a conveyor-belt self-checkout lane. I scanned my store bonus card and started with the limes, which took screen touches to locate. I hesitated a few seconds while I pulled the 12-pack of soda from the cart and was told to "Move your limes to the belt." I completed scanning the rest of the order and paid by debit card, without incident. Each time I scanned an item that had a discount, the system told me how much I saved. The transaction took 1 minute 52 seconds, not including the time it took to bag the items at the far end of the counter. I was reminded by the machine to take my receipt.

- B.B.

Harris Teeter

The store at the Lee-Harrison Center in North Arlington had nine regular lanes, two express lanes and four self-check stations with landing-pad scales. The problem with the express lanes is that they are on the other side of the store from the regular lanes, so if you're not familiar with the place, you might not know they're there. (You pass them on the way in, but your back is to them.)

When I was in the store to buy the items, there were lines at every open register and at the self-check machines. Customers organize themselves by forming one line that feeds all the self-checks rather than trying to queue up at individual machines.

Customers of every age group used the machines, including moms with tots in their carts, probably because the store was so busy.

No one in the self-check line had more than 15 items; most had around six.

Buying produce can be tedious here. They put a sticker/code on every piece of produce and you have to punch in the code, then tell the machine how many (if the price is by the piece), then put the item on the machine to be weighed and/or identified. If the sticker has fallen off, you have to look up the code yourself (or scroll through screens looking at photos). Also, the machine asks you questions ("Do you have any coupons? Do you qualify for a senior citizen discount?") and waits for your response. So the exercise took a few seconds longer here. From the time I punched my stopwatch button until I picked up my bags and pulled out the receipt: 1 minute 50 seconds. (I figure I saved a few seconds because there was no conveyor.)

- J.T.

Magruder's

The mid-size store in Vienna has seven lanes: two self-checkout with landing-pad scales, two express and five manned checkouts.

On a Friday evening the store was fairly busy but the self-checkout lanes were not in use. A short stretch of counter before the scanning system allows space to plop a few items or a purse. I began with the limes, which were on the first screen of produce photos. I stacked the items as vertically as possible on the landing pad to allow for the 12-pack of soda. The automated voice is pitched a little low.

The credit card/signature pad is above and beyond where the groceries are stacked, so I had to move the cart forward to complete the transaction, then back to place the items in my cart.

Total time: 1 minute 46 seconds, without incident.

- B.B.

Safeway

Small store in the Palisades neighborhood of the District; three staffed checkout lanes and two self-checkout stands. On a weekday morning, the regular lanes had one or two customers at each. The self-check lanes have a small shelf on which you could place a hand basket; the landing-pad scales are low and larger than most of this kind.

After I scanned the first item, the automated voice asked not too loudly, "Have you scanned your Club Card?" And it announced savings after the one or two items that were discounted. When I scanned the can of chickpeas too quickly after the salmon, the machine posted a "check bagging" notice on the touch screen. Limes took a two-screen search to find and input the right number.

A middle-aged woman with a teenager in tow seemed impatient behind me and caused me to rush. But the system didn't respond to a fast touch on the screen or to items that were scanned too quickly in succession.

The credit card signature pad is conveniently located to the immediate right of the touch screen. A prompt asked how many plastic bags I used (because this store is in the District, where bags cost 5 cents each). Total time elapsed: 1 minute 54 seconds, not including the time it took to bag my items. The Voice told me not once, but twice, to remember to take my items from the bagging area.

- B.B.

Shopper's Food & Pharmacy

This busy store in Falls Church had 15 checkout lanes: nine regular, four "Self Chek" with conveyor belts and two express (15 items or fewer).

When I was there, the three open regular checkout lanes, one open express lane and four self-checks handled a fairly steady stream of customers. There were never more than two shoppers in line anywhere. Both the express and self-check lanes were heavily used. I'd say an equal number of men and women used the machines and they were mostly older, because that seems to be who shops at 10 a.m. There were several women in the store with kids or infants riding in their shopping carts, and all but one used the regular lanes; that one woman sat her daughter, about 3, on the top ledge of her cart while using the self-check machine.

I scanned my five items and set them one by one on the belt. The chickpeas set off a little alarm and a notice: "unexpected item" on conveyor belt! But I could tell that it had been scanned and I had been charged for it, so I bypassed the problem by just picking the can off the belt and carrying it down to the bagging area. I punched the START button on my stopwatch/phone, scanned the items, filled my bags and pulled the receipt in 1 minute 36 seconds, without hurrying.

It would have taken longer if I had gotten something more exotic than limes, though. A photo of limes came up right away on a produce screen because it was listed as a "popular" item. But if I'd bought, say, bok choy, it would probably have been a little more challenging.

- J.T.

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