- Associated Press - Monday, September 26, 2011

MANCHESTER, Conn. — When Keith Wearne goes grocery shopping, checking out with a cashier is worth the few extra moments, rather than risking that a self-service machine might go awry, mishandle his purchase and delay him even more.

Most shoppers side with Mr. Wearne, studies show. And with that in mind, some grocery store chains nationwide are bagging the do-it-yourself option, once considered the wave of the future, in the name of customer service.

“It’s just more interactive,” Mr. Wearne said during a recent shopping trip at Manchester’s Big Y Foods. “You get someone who says hello; you get a person to talk to if there’s a problem.”

Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out the self-service lanes. Some other regional chains and major players, including some Albertsons locations, also have reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes.

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used cashier-staffed checkout lanes.

Supermarket chains started introducing self-service lanes about 10 years ago, touting them as an easy way for shoppers to scan their items’ bar codes, pay, bag their goods and be on their way. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts as they encouraged shoppers to do it themselves.

The reality, though, was mixed. Some shoppers loved them and were quick converts, while other reactions ranged from no interest to outright dislike — much of it shared on blogs or in Facebook groups.

An internal study by Big Y found delays in its self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons, payments and other problems; intentional and accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less-expensive varieties; and other problems that helped guide its decision to bag the self-service lanes.

But for time-conscious Greg Styles, a college lacrosse coach and father of 7-year-old twins, the top priority is paying and leaving without lingering in a checkout lane.

“I’m not happy about it, not at all,” the 47-year-old South Windsor resident said of the change, ringing up baked goods and chicken breasts at Big Y’s Manchester store. “I like to get in and get out. These lanes are quick and really easy, so I use them all the time.”

He’s not the typical shopper, though, according to research.

While some chains are reducing their self-service options, others are keeping them in place along with the traditional lanes because they think choice is an important part of customer service.

“Our philosophy is giving customers options. People shop in different ways and we want to accommodate their preferences,” said Suzi Robinson, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., which has self-service lanes in about 85 percent of its nearly 400 stores in the Northeast.

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