Passions are running high at your local supermarket.
On the one side are customers like Karen Sutton, 26, who shops at the Whole Foods downtown - but only about once every two weeks when she absolutely has to. The beautiful new store doesn't happen to have any self-scan lanes.
"I would go to the grocery store more often if there was self-checkout," says the University of Maryland medical student. "My refrigerator is bare after 1 1/2 weeks, but it beats waiting in line."
On the other side are customers like Mercy Rock, 46, who shops at Giant and Super Fresh, both of which have do-it-yourself lanes.
"I refuse to use them," the Cockeysville resident says. The technology doesn't scare her; she just likes to interact with a human being. "So many things you're doing yourself these days. They're taking more and more away from the personal touch. Even if there's a long line, I'll wait for a cashier rather than do it myself."
You've probably seen the self-scan lanes. With the help of a computerized voice and pictures on a touch screen, they let you do everything yourself. You scan bar codes and coupons, weigh your produce, pay with credit cards or cash, and bag your order. Built-in security devices help ensure that customers don't cheat. In the Baltimore area, only the Super Fresh and Giant chains have self-checkout lanes, although other food retailers are considering them.
Mark Hamilton, director of customer service at Super Fresh, isn't sure what all the fuss is about.
"We added self-checkout lanes because some customers like having that option," he says, sounding faintly puzzled.
Added is the operative word. Hamilton is standing in the state-of-the-art Super Fresh in Timonium; at least at this store, no lanes with cashiers were replaced with machines. You'll even get human contact here. Smiling "associates" rush up and offer to help if you're a first-time user and will bag for you when the store isn't busy. (Self-checkout is always monitored by someone who can deal with problems.)
"Give self-scan a try," Hamilton says. "If you like it, fine. If it's not something you're comfortable with, [you can go back to a lane with] a cashier."
According to the Food Marketing Institute, 25 percent of food retailers have installed the machines in some stores, at least on a trial basis. By the end of 2004, the trade association estimates, that number will be up to 50 percent. The bottom line is that self-checkout is here to stay.
Why here? Why now? And why so fast?
Partly it was in response to a labor shortage a few years ago. Partly it's that customers are ready for it.
"It's just so easy," says Marshall Thompson, 54, of Glen Arm, who shops in the Giant at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue. "It saves me a lot of time."
In the early '90s, Safeway tested self-scanning in its Greenbelt store but took the machines out because not enough customers were using them. Now, says director of public affairs Greg Ten Eyck, the technology has improved enough that the chain will be taking another look at it.
More important, though, attitudes toward the technology have changed. We've gotten used to pumping our own gas and getting cash from ATMs. It's hard to remember a time when we resented automated teller machines instead of thinking of them as a necessary convenience.
Mike Webster, vice president and general manager of an Atlanta-based producer of self-scan technology, NCR Self-Checkout Solutions, says his company intentionally designed its machines to look and feel like ATMs so customers would be comfortable with them. Apparently it worked.
"The consumer adoption rate for the first five years of self-checkout has been much faster than for the first five years of ATMs," he says. "It's empowering, it's choice, it's convenience. In North America, particularly, people like the control."
Americans are more time-pressed than ever, or at least they think they are. You may not be as good at scanning and bagging as a cashier who does it for a living, but it's not just the actual time in front of the scanner that counts. Self-checkout lines are usually shorter.
On a recent evening when snow was forecast, people stood five- or six-deep at every lane at the Giant in the Rotunda - except the four self-scan lanes where there were no lines at all. (These self-scan lanes did replace four regular lanes at the Giant, but all the lanes were rarely if ever staffed anyway.)
And the self-scan lines tend to move faster. We've all felt lane rage when the customer in front of us slows down the cashier by chatting about her new hairdo. The customer in front of you in a self-checkout lane is probably as interested in getting out of the store quickly as you are.
There are other reasons customers use self-checkout. John Murphy, 45, first tried it when he wanted to buy a banana for lunch in the Towson Super Fresh. "It saved me the embarrassment of paying 35 cents for one banana after standing in line for 10 minutes," he says jokingly.
The embarrassment factor is definitely a reason people like scanning their own orders. You can have a bit more privacy when you're buying items like contraceptives, personal hygiene and incontinence products, and men's hair coloring. (No, the talkative machines don't name what you're scanning, except for the produce.)
"People want to avoid the snickering 16-year-old at checkout," says Webster. And now that food safety is such an issue, he adds, consumers also like the fact that one more person - namely a cashier - isn't handling their produce and other food items.
Finally, there's the entertainment value. "I can't tell you it's faster," says Jane Feldman, 56, who shops at the Giant in Pikesville, "but it's more fun." She started out of curiosity, and she started slow - first paying cash, then using her credit card, then scanning coupons.
Of course, there can be glitches when you use self-scan. Marshall Thompson recalls his last trip, when a line formed behind him because several items and two coupons simply wouldn't scan. An associate had to come back to help four or five times. "It was kind of frustrating," he says. "But most of the time, it's smooth sailing."
One young woman at the Rotunda Giant dropped a six-pack of V8 and a couple of the cans rolled out. She scanned one of the loose cans. The machine rang it up as a six-pack, and she put it on the belt. When she added the other cans, the belt went into reverse, thinking she was trying to avoid paying. She tried scanning a second can. The machine rang it up as a second six-pack. A line started forming behind her. "Help is on the way," the computerized voice informed her.
When the self-scan technology first came out, people assumed it would be Gen-Y customers and computer nerds who would most immediately take to it, but that hasn't been true. NCR Self-Checkout Solutions does biannual demographic surveys in five areas: age, income, ethnicity, education and gender. To the company's surprise, says Webster, "There's been no significant statistical difference among them." Senior citizens who have more time on their hands seem to use the self-scan lanes as much as dot.commers.
New developments are in the works that may make self-checkout even easier. Manufacturers are looking into fingerprint technology. It sounds a little scary, but it would make it possible to scan products that require I.D.
Food retailers are exploring "self-weigh." Customers would weigh and get a printed bar code in the produce department, which would speed up the self-checkout process.
Even more intriguing, the industry is developing what it calls RSS, reduced space symbology, otherwise known as teeny-weeny bar codes. They would be small enough to go on a lime, say, instead of the number you now have to key in. You could scan one lime like you would a box of Cheerios and enter the quantity. (The self-checkout machine knows if you're cheating by the approximate weight.)
Weight-specific items like produce are always what slow down self-scanning. That's why it may surprise some that even natural-food chains like Whole Foods - which sell so much produce, bulk products, hot food and salad- bar items - are looking into do-it-yourself checkout. The Whole Foods store in Gaithersburg started testing three lanes in November.
"From minute one, people started using it," says Sarah Kenney, spokeswoman for the mid-Atlantic region. Still, no decision has been made on whether to go forward with self-checkout. (Renovations are scheduled to start on the Whole Foods in Mount Washington this year; they may or may not include self-scanning.)
But who knows? Maybe Karen Sutton will get a self-checkout lane at her Whole Foods store in the Inner Harbor before she graduates. Even busy medical students sometimes need to shop more than once every two weeks.
Making it easier
People quickly figure out that self-scan works best under certain circumstances, says Mike Webster of NCR Self-Checkout Solutions. Here are some tips for using the do-it-yourself lanes most efficiently:
Think of them as express lanes. The machines work best for orders of about 25 items or less, although there's often no limit to how many items you're allowed to scan. Large orders tend to get backed up on the belt, and the computer will ask you to bag before you scan any more.
If you do want to self-scan a large order, consider shopping with someone who'll bag for you.
Bulky items like a 50-pound bag of dog food or a 12-roll package of paper towels can cause the machinery to balk. Better head for a cashier unless a staffer is there to help. (The item must pass through another scanner on the belt as a security check. Bulky items may not fit.)
Products that require I.D. like tobacco or paying by check will slow things down at self-scan.
Items bought in bulk like dried fruit or hard candy can be a problem because you don't have a bar code or number to key in. You'll have to wait for an associate's help.
Picking produce that has a little sticker with a number on it can speed things up. It's easier to keyboard in the number on the touch screen than look up the photo of sweet potatoes. (Should I look it up under S or P or Y for yams?)