In a variation on the old "Man Bites Dog" headline, a shopper from Fulton, Md., announced yesterday that the Columbia Big Kmart had lured her away from the trendy Target store across the street.
It was Kmart's new self-checkout registers that did it -- technology that allows shoppers to bag and pay for merchandise without a cashier.
Beth Viscarra, a stay-at-home mom, discovered the automatic counters at the Columbia store earlier this week. Even though she faced a few glitches, she came back.
"It did make me come back because it was fun," Viscarra said. "I was going to go to Target, but I decided to come here instead."
That's exactly what Kmart had in mind. The self-scanners are part of a strategy to catch up with competitors Wal-Mart and Target, given Kmart's continuing slide in earnings. While other discounters are ahead of the retail pack this season, Kmart this week announced a 2.6 percent drop in November sales.
The self-scan equipment reached Columbia about three weeks ago, just in time for the holiday rush.
Yesterday morning, the four registers with human checkers had lines five and six people deep, their carts carrying toys, Christmas wrapping paper and tree ornaments. The four automatic counters remained unoccupied for long stretches at a time. But that may not have been because of fear of technology. The self-scan stations are so inconspicuous that many customers simply passed them by.
It wasn't necessarily their fault: Kmart has not promoted the new self-scans the way Wal-Mart has, said Burt Flickinger III, managing director of Reach Marketing in Westport, Conn.
"When you have a new consumer initiative like this, you want to over-communicate with consumers that the self-scan is a great consumer benefit," he said.
But with its continuing troubles, Kmart has cut its advertising and marketing budgets, and with that, self-scan never got properly promoted, Flickinger said.
Kmart began installing the scanning stations in April and is already three-quarters of the way to having them built into 1,300 of its 2,114 nationwide stores. Twelve stores in Maryland and 21 in Virginia are using the new technology.
For consumers, the advantages may be more psychological than anything else, at least until they get used to the gizmos, said Russell Jones, a retail-industry vice president at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.
"It gives people a sense of control," Jones said. "It's like taking the winding roads to town instead of the expressway. The expressway might be faster, but drivers have to sit in traffic. So some take the winding roads just because it keeps them moving. It feels faster."
Even NCR Corp., which builds Kmart's registers, acknowledges that human checkers can be faster than the do-it-yourselfers, if the lines are the same length. But NCR says virtually all 36 retailers who use the system receive payback for their investment in 18 months to a year.
"That creates great opportunity long-term for retailers to improve profitability and service," said Mike Webster, NCR's general manager of self-checkout solutions.
"I don't think retailers are approaching it as saving money," said Britt Wood, a vice president at the International Mass Retail Association. "The cost of putting those suckers in is pretty expensive."
Kmart boasts that roughly 28 percent of its transactions are self-scanned in stores with the equipment.
Scanners will not solve all of Kmart's problems. The biggest is that Wal-Mart and Target are sprouting new stores in developing areas while Kmart, though still the No. 2 discounter, is retrenching as it grapples with outmoded computers and with inventory problems that result in too much of some merchandise and not enough other merchandise in stock, said Michael Schroeder, chief investment officer at Wasmer Schroeder & Co.
"They had allowed their store base to deteriorate to the point where they were no longer competitive with Wal-Mart or Target," Schroeder said. "They were losing upscale clientele to both these stores, and their merchandising efforts were inferior."
Ira Kalish, chief economist at research firm Retail Forward, said Kmart's urban locations traditionally have attracted low-income shoppers while its prices have failed to remain competitive.
"They have reduced their costs, but so has Wal-Mart," Kalish said. "If they try to match Wal-Mart's low prices, their margins go down the drain. If they don't match, they're at a competitive disadvantage."
Kmart officials say the new registers will not replace cashiers.
The technology "helps us in terms of flexibility so we can have people working the floor and stocking the shelves," said Susan Dennis, a Kmart spokeswoman. "It's a service for customers who have a few items and want to get in and out of the store quickly."
The approach makes sense because most people like the idea of faster service through technology, said Ray Burke, an Indiana University business administration professor.
Burke cites his survey last year of more than 2,000 consumers, which found that 62 percent rate automatic registers as a must-have or a should-have feature in the retail world.
But because operating these systems involves a learning curve, Burke suggests their use only in stores with lots of repeat customers, who are more likely to invest time in mastering the technology.
Retailers should be resigned, though, to the fact that some shoppers will never adapt to the technology. About 22 percent said they want nothing to do with it, Burke said.
Consider a longtime Kmart shopper who described himself as "an old guy who turns 79 next month."
"It all goes back to being set in my ways," he said. "I like human contact."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.