American consumers have learned to help themselves at the gas pump, bank machine and restaurant soda fountains. Now, they can add self-serve supermarket checkout to the list.
Super Fresh Food Markets is introducing shoppers in the Baltimore area to a checkout lane that allows them to scan their own groceries.
The customer does it all, swipes bar codes over electronic scanners, punches codes on a touch screen monitor, weighs produce, totals the order, bags it and tears off a receipt to give a cashier at a separate register. A computerized voice guides consumers with instructions such as, "Move your bananas to the belt" and "Weigh your broccoli."
Pam Sisk, a 34-year-old medical secretary from New Windsor quickly picked up the routine while shopping Tuesday at Super Fresh's month-old superstore on North Ridge Road in Ellicott City, entering the code for strawberries and scanning a bottle of shampoo as the price flashes on a monitor and is echoed by the computer voice.
"I would do this again," she said. "It was fun."
Fellow shopper Holly Lerch got some assistance from her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Katie, who gleefully tossed groceries on the belt -- before her mother could scan them.
No matter. The weight-sensitive belt knows when to switch into reverse and send an item back. For less innocent circumstances, that's how the technology guards against theft.
Super Fresh's parent company, A&P; of Montvale, N.J., is one of more than a dozen supermarket chains across the country experimenting with the technology, says the Food Marketing Institute of Washington.
Besides the Ellicott City store's three self-serve lanes -- the chain's first in Maryland -- A&P; also has self-scanners in a dozen stores on the East Coast. About 12 percent to 25 percent of shoppers use them, said Andy Carrano, vice president of marketing.
"We're looking to roll more out," he said. The company also is looking at a newer generation of scanners that would automatically accept payment, he said.
Self-scanners will likely be included in the 175 to 200 superstores the company plans to build in the next three years, including "a good number" scheduled for the Baltimore area, he said.
Gives 'added control'
"It is something that's being tested more widely, in response to consumer demand -- particularly consumer demand for greater control over the shopping experience," said Carole Throssell, spokeswoman for the food institute.
Studies show consumers average eight or nine minutes waiting in the checkout lines, "and in today's fast-paced society, that's not fast enough," Throssell said. "The perception is if you check out yourself, you have added control and might get out of the store sooner. It's also targeted at the younger generation that feels more comfortable with that technology."
Though such systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, they have become much more sophisticated and better able to protect a store from loss, said Denis Zegar, president of the Mid Atlantic Food Dealers Association.
That has persuaded more chains -- usually those with stores of at least 40,000-square-feet -- to test or adopt the technology.
Companies are also exploring self-scanning as a way to solve a growing labor shortage, he said. "We're still having a difficult time finding qualified people," Zegar said. "This gives us the opportunity to provide service to the customer, offers the accuracy you get from scanning and helps stores with their labor crunch."
But don't look for monitors and computerized voices to completely replace cashiers, retail experts say.
"I don't ever see it going past three lanes, mainly because we still have an aging population," Zegar said. "There are people absolutely scared of computers. There are those that kind of like it, and it will provide a convenience for them."
2 cashiers handle 3 lines
At the Ellicott City store, two cashiers work the three self-serve lanes. One takes money at a register. The other greets shoppers, inviting them to try the system and helping them if they need it.
That was Barbara Buhl's job Tuesday.
"Would you like to try it?" she asked an elderly man pushing his cart toward the manned checkout. "Oh no," he said and kept going.
But she got plenty of takers -- teen-agers who zipped through with their magazines, a retired pilot who said he liked the idea of taking control and Catharine Garrett and Ann Kelly, neighbors from Catonsville who said they are "over 60."
Some shoppers appeared puzzled or skeptical; others were enthusiastic.
"There are too many steps. I don't see how it saves time," Kelly said. But, she added, "It's the way we're going."
Linda Guiltay of Ellicott City sped through the checkout, quickly scanning her groceries.
"It was easy. I think it's pretty self-explanatory," she said, adding that she's a regular who chooses self-checkout, "if there's not a line."
"It's a good concept," said Irwin Yanus, 60, an engineer for Northrop Grumman, who said that given a choice of self-serve or regular, "I'd pick the line that got me out of the store the quickest."
Melinda Magness, a cashier overseeing the self-serve lanes, helped consumers do just that, showing them how to look up codes in a booklet or punch keys depicting the most popular produce items, such as potatoes and green beans.
The computer occasionally announced "the last item can not be processed. Help is on the way," and Magness would pull out a key and manually punch in an item.
Children like it
Glitches such as that haven't deterred customers, who frequently wait in line to self scan, she said. Children have been among the biggest advocates.
"They encourage their parents to use it," Magness said.
"It's fun," agreed Janelle Perez, 8, shopping with her mother, Marilyn.
Kathy O'Dunne checked items out side-by-side with her 8-year-old daughter, Katie, acknowledging that the system would take some getting used to. But would she use it again? "If I'm with Katie I will," she said.
Strong demographics and high volume at the Ellicott City store, which features a sushi bar, cheese island and ethnic foods, make it a perfect test site, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, the trade journal in Columbia.
"If it does catch on, most certainly other chains will do it," Metzger said. "But it's too early to say if it's something that will be a mainstay with supermarkets or other retailers."
Similar systems have been tested or put in place at selected stores of Shaw's Supermarkets, Costco, Kroger Co. and Sam's Club, the Food Marketing Institute said.
In Maryland, Safeway tested a self-scanning system in its Greenbelt store in 1990 but discontinued it after six months, said Greg Ten- Eyck, a spokesman for the eastern division.
"Our definition of excellent customer service involves friendly and efficient cashiers," he said.
Even if the technology does catch on in a big way, Throssell said, "I don't believe there will ever be a time when self-checkout is all that's available."
Pub Date: 1/01/99