June 10, 2004

Grocery Self-Service

Trends: Supermarket-checkout clerks are going the way of the bank teller - available if you want one, avoidable if you don't.

Thursday, June 10, 2004
More groceries check out self-service
Customers' changing shopping habits feed popularity, study says


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Supermarket-checkout clerks are going the way of the bank teller - available if you want one, avoidable if you don't.

Self-checkout machines, which let customers scan, bag and pay for their own groceries, offer shoppers a chance to avoid the lines at the checkout stands.

"This is like an ATM for them. It's quicker and easier," said Jennifer Panetta, a spokeswoman for the six-state Harris Teeter chain, based in Matthews, N.C. "They are in pretty much all our stores."

About one-quarter of grocery chains are trying them now, with about 34,000 machines in use in stores in 2003, said market analyst Greg Buzek, the president of IHL Consulting Group in Franklin, Tenn.

Buzek, who wrote a report on the equipment, predicts that by 2007 there will be 244,000 self-checkout machines in stores and that almost every chain will have some of them.

"The way we shop has changed quite a bit in the last 15 years," he said. "But the checkout lane hasn't changed all that much."

For example, shoppers have been shifting from grocery carts to plastic baskets and adding short stops to the big weekly grocery purchase. More than half of supermarket customers bring fewer than 15 items to the register, and self-checkout is ideal for them, according to Buzek's report.

Express lanes were set up to speed these customers through, but self-checkout can be even faster, Buzek said. A space that could fit one or two lanes can handle four to six self-checkout machines, reducing the chance of getting stuck in a line. "There's usually nobody in line at self-checkout," Buzek said.

Customers take longer than a clerk to ring up and bag groceries, but the shoppers do not seem to notice that, the report said. Because the customer is keeping busy scanning and bagging instead of waiting while the clerk does the work, time seems to pass faster.

"I think this is faster if you know what you are doing," said Khatool Reha of Reston, Va., as she dropped a couple of cans of spaghetti into a plastic bag at a Harris Teeter store.

When she buys more, "I just go over there," said Reha, motioning toward the staffed lanes.

For retailers, the use of self-checkout can reduce staffing at the front of the store. One staffer typically is the only employee needed to assist customers at the self-checkout lanes.

Buzek said that there also is less theft at a self-checkout counter.

Wal-Mart has self-checkout in about 840 of its more than 3,000 stores and is putting the equipment into all of its new stores as they open, said Gus Whitcomb, a spokesman for the chain in Bentonville, Ark.

Whitcomb said that Wal-Mart customers have put just about everything through the scanners - even ready-to-assemble desks in "a big gigantic box." Other stores, such as The Home Depot hardware chain, also have been using self-checkout.

Not every food-store chain is leaping to the technology.

Publix Super Markets, based in Lakeland, Fla., has about 800 stores, mostly in Florida, but only about 10 have self-checkout, and seven were already in stores that the chain bought in Tennessee, said Brenda Reid, a Publix spokeswoman.

Publix stores where the manager sees a demand for self-checkout can get it, she said, but "nobody is beating down our doors."


Posted by Craig at June 10, 2004 07:50 PM