Originally created 08/12/01

Grocery stores experiment with self-scanning systems to combat long lines



Joni Howe likes scanning and bagging groceries at the Bi-Lo on Columbia Road.

It's not her job; she's a customer.

The 24-year-old Augusta woman was using one of the self-checkout machines that are becoming prominent in the area as grocers look for ways to alleviate long lines at the registers.

"When the checkout lanes are backed up, and I've just got a few things, I come right here," she said. "It's quick, it's easy, and I'm in and out."

Some shoppers also use the machines for large orders.

"I always come here - there's no lines at these machines," said Juanita Jenkins, 45, as she swiped her debit card at the self-checkout lane. "My husband and I come together, and one scans and one bags. It's pretty simple."

Self-checkout lanes allow customers to scan and pay for groceries without the assistance of a clerk. Most systems accept cash and credit or debit cards. A clerk, who usually supervises as many as four self-checkout lines, is nearby to handle payments made with checks.

The clerk also provides assistance and keeps an eye on transactions with help from video cameras designed to keep customers from bagging unscanned items.

"Overall, it's a pretty good system," said Jennifer Seigler, 21, the self-checkout clerk at Columbia Road Bi-Lo. "The system is pretty hard to fool."

The bagging station has a computer scale that has been programmed with the weight of every item in the store. The machine will halt the transaction if a bagged item does not match the weight of a scanned item.

"Most people who use it do it because it's fast - not because they want to scam anyone," Ms. Seigler said.

Industry analysts predict that self-checkout lines will become more prominent as other types of retailers embrace the technology, seeking an answer to the shortage of qualified labor.

"Grocers all have had an increasing problem of acquiring cashiers," said Jerry Morton, principal consultant for Store Systems Consulting and Marketing in Lawrence, Kan. "Even companies that have reputations for being great to work for have had problems attracting them. That's why this technology's proliferation has started now instead of 14 years ago. If help was plentiful, it would be different."

Self-checkout is not expected to replace cashiers altogether because some shoppers will always refuse to use the machines.

"Some people won't change their shopping habits," said Tina Horn, a spokeswoman for Productivity Solutions Inc., a manufacturer of self-checkout machines. "So cashiers won't disappear. People who don't like the self-checkout should view it like this: There'll be fewer people standing in line with them."

In the beginning ...

The first self-checkout machine was unveiled by Florida-based Check Robot at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention in 1987. As with most new technologies, it was a bit coarse and impractical but drew plenty of oohs and ahhs.

Kroger tested the machines at two Atlanta stores, getting rave customer reviews, but the technology was too expensive for widespread implementation.

In the early 1990s, a second system emerged from current market leader Optimal Robotics Corp. of Montreal. By 1995, the company had eight terminals in stores. Today Optimal Robotics has more than 6,000 in operation and handles the self-checkout needs of Bi-Lo and Kroger stores.

Its original design, the U-Scan Express, was meant to handle small orders. The company recently introduced versions to handle orders of all sizes.

"The potential for self-checkout is huge," said Robin Yaffe, spokeswoman for Optimal Robotics. "According to our surveys, retailers see about 30 percent of their customers go through these lanes."

Optimal's competitor, Check Robot, became Productivity Solutions Inc., and its product became better and more adaptable than the original. The company now supplies Winn-Dixie stores.

According to Productivity Solutions surveys, people of all demographics use self-checkout. Some surveys say 25 percent of customers use the systems exclusively, and more than one-third of shoppers choose only store with self-checkout.

Most of the grocery chains that have stores in Augusta have embraced the technology. Kroger on Washington Road, Winn-Dixie at Augusta Exchange and three Bi-Los have some form of automated checkout service.

Food Lion is testing self-checkout at 11 of its 1,186 stores, though no Georgia stores have them yet. Publix is testing a machine in Tampa, Fla., but a spokesman said the grocer has no plans for a widespread deployment yet.

"At first, it was just an option to the 10-items-or-less lane," said Ms. Horn, Productivity Solutions spokeswoman. "Now customers can process any size order, and they like it. They like the control. They like the privacy. It's changing the way people shop."

In the future

Other retail industries are taking note.

NCR Corp. recently announced that it will install self-checkout systems in 1,300 Kmart stores nationwide, including the one at 1647 Gordon Highway in Augusta, by the end of the year.

"It should help with the flow of traffic during peak hours and the holiday season," said Susan Dennis, spokeswoman for Kmart's technology department. "We tested in two Michigan stores last fall, and now we'll be putting them in all our supercenters and high-volume stores."

NCR is also talking to apparel retailers about self-checkout, said Mike Webster, general manager of the company's self-checkout division. He said he could not yet disclose which companies are interested.

Wal-Mart, which adopts new technology only after exhaustive testing, is troubleshooting several self-checkout systems.

"We're trying to gauge its effectiveness, and we're gathering data from our customers," Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said. "There no plan for widespread deployment yet."

Optimal Robotics is testing a self-checkout machine at a Home Depot in Atlanta that is across the street from a Kroger that has the system.

"We're finding that many of the Kroger customers also shop at Home Depot, so they're already comfortable with it," Ms. Yaffe said. "It's the same concept for any retailer. It's just tailored to different products."

Optimal Robotics unveiled a more compact version of its U-Scan at the National Association of Convenience Stores Technology Show in April. The response was positive, Ms. Yaffe said - enough so that the company began testing the system in retail outlets.

"Think of them in the same light as ATMs or pay-at-the-pump at gas stations," Mr. Morton said. "It's the kind of technology that's not going to go away or stagnate; it's only going to grow as different retailers realize how it can help them."

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or jbanks15@hotmail.com.