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

(Steven Guarnaccia for The Washington Post)
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.

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