Grocers take back the checkout lane

A checkout clerk prepares to bag frozen juice at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Hobson: I don't know about you, but almost every time I go to the supermarket, I choose the self-checkout. I'm not sure if it's actually faster, but it's kind of fun, and self-checkout machines seem like the way of the future.

Well, in fact, they may not be -- some supermarkets are already getting rid of them, as New England Public Radio's Anne Mostue reports.


Anne Mostue: The Big Y supermarket chain in Massachusetts and Connecticut installed self-checkout machines in 30 of its stores as a time- and money-saving alternative to a cashiers. The only problem was, just one in five customers used them.

Jeffrey Hamel: We started seeing the frustrations with customers, and then the line would get backed up.

Jeffrey Hamel is manager of a Big Y supermarket in Springfield, Mass. He says customers who opt to use the self-checkout machines often have questions or problems that require a cashier's attention -- basically negating their purpose. And there were the customers who just skipped the scan.

Hamel: Theft was an issue. Unfortunately, you are going to have those dishonest people that were going through and we were losing quite a bit of money in it. The maintenance on the self-check was astronomical; we were constantly having someone come in, fix the computer chip, fix the belt. There was always an issue with the technology.

Self-checkouts caught on about 12 years ago, and are still being installed in some chains. Joe Tarnowski, an editor at Progressive Grocer magazine, says about 70 percent of supermarket chains have tried them.

Joe Tarnowski: Self-checkout units cost at a minimum around $20,000 each, and that's just the basic cost of the equipment.

Big Y, like most stores, installed four per store. Now they're on their way out. It's the second chain in the country to pull its self-checkouts; the privately held Albertsons stores in the west and the south have removed them from all of their stores.

On a recent afternoon at the Big Y in Springfield, customers are lined up in front of cashiers. The self-checkout lanes are deserted. Customer Linda Adams says she prefers buying her groceries from an actual person.

Linda Adams: Because I think they're very courteous here and they pack right. And I think they do a better job than me, so I'd rather wait in line five more minutes and get it done right.

Both Big Y and Albertsons promise to open up more checkout lanes -- with human cashiers.

I'm Anne Mostue for Marketplace.

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