- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Lisette Werbowetzki didn’t waste any time waiting in line during a recent visit to Giant Food in Greenbelt. Instead, the University of Maryland student zipped

through one of the store’s six open self-checkout lanes, scanned her items, paid, bagged them and was on her way.

“I use them so I don’t have to wait in line,” she said. “I’m all for them.”

Miss Werbowetzki is among many consumers opting for do-it-yourself checkout aisles, and retailers are catching on.

The machines, which allow consumers to scan, bag and pay for their purchases, have been popping up in retail chains nationwide from Giant Food to Wal-Mart. Most recently, home-improvement giant Home Depot started installing do-it-yourself cashier units.

Industry officials say the appeal for consumers is simple: speed and convenience.

“Generally consumers initiate [self-checkout] because they are frustrated about being in line,” said Mike Webster, vice president and general manager of NCR FastLane, which has 10,000 self-checkout units in stores around the world.

Self-checkout began to have a real presence in the late 1990s. Companies making the devices targeted grocery store chains before expanding to other retailers.

Now about 29 percent of supermarket companies offer self-checkout, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Those companies, ranging from a single shop to a big chain, are using self-checkout in at least one of their stores. Another 24 percent of supermarket companies have indicated they plan to implement the systems, according to FMI.

“It’s become a competitive issue,” said Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Food Inc., which has self-serve lanes in 33 of its 191 stores. The Landover chain introduced the technology in June 2000.

Twenty percent of customers use self-checkout in the Giant stores that offer it, Mr. Scher said.

FMI’s research shows that more than half of shoppers are using the self-service at least once a month.

Mr. Webster said similar technology like automated teller machines, pay-at-the-pump stations and movie ticket kiosks have made self-checkout units more acceptable.

“Consumers are more accustomed to this technology,” he said.

Shoppers who don’t want to use self-checkout tend to fall into two categories: those who are intimidated by the technology or those who expect a level of service from their retailer so they won’t do it themselves.

“You’re not going to convince me [to use self-checkout],” said Salome Bayly, of University Park, who went through a cashier’s line during a recent trip to the Greenbelt Giant. “I just think if you buy products and pick them out, you shouldn’t have to [scan] and bag them.”

But for those who are afraid of the machines, self-checkout users say the process is simple.

“Once you use the system once or twice and understand how it works, it’s a piece of cake,” said Greg Buzek, president of IHL Consulting Group, a retail research and consulting firm in Franklin, Tenn.

Colleen Coon, who uses self-checkout when she doesn’t have many items, agrees.

“If you can read, you can do it,” said the College Park resident, who had finished shopping at Giant with a cart full of groceries. “It’s frustrating, though, when people don’t know how to use them.”

Self-checkouts are an ideal alternative for those who don’t want to deal with people or wait in line. Self-checkout advocates say the units get the consumer involved, making their visit less frustrating.

“We have found them to be efficient, and they help to get the customer out of our store quickly,” Mr. Scher said.

For retailers, replacing cashiers with automated machines saves money. The cost for four units and a station for a supervising attendant costs about $100,000 from both NCR and Optimal Robotics — two makers of self-checkouts.

A return on investment usually occurs within 12 to 18 months, said Robin Yaffe, a spokeswoman for the Montreal-based Optimal Robotics.

Mr. Buzek said the self-checkout lanes free employees to assist customers and generate more sales.

“Retailers are not looking to reduce [labor] but redeploy it because by the time the consumers get to the cashier they have already made their decision,” he said.

Self-checkout units also have reduced the amount of fraud at a store because there is less employee theft, Mr. Buzek said.

“Customers are more honest than the employees,” he said, adding that self-checkout units usually have security devices like cameras and employees watching the stations.

But Mr. Buzek said the biggest problem retailers face is training employees “to sell the concept of self-checkout.”

“The consumer needs to be educated on it,” he said.

Mr. Buzek anticipates about 5 percent of all checkout lanes at retailers will be self-serve by 2006.

Despite the anticipated growth, some retailers including Safeway and Target Stores do not plan to accept the do-it-yourself trend anytime soon.

Safeway, for instance, tested the concept years ago.

“We’ve had next to no interest from customers,” spokesman Craig Muckle said.

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