Dynamist Blog


A number of readers wrote in response to my post about hand-held scanners that let you ring up your groceries as you shop. The ones in my local Albertson's are an extension of the popular self-service checkout lines installed last year.

From reasder Janna Joseph:

I, also, look forward to more tech innovations to make in-store shopping more self-service. In my rather small town, our WalMart this year put in self-service lines. For a while few customers availed themselves of them. Free checkers cast a disparaging eye with a fearful warning, "You won't be able to figure them out," if they saw you approaching the self-serve counter. A few months later I see increased usage of these self-check lines. Also our Home Depot has them, but so far no grocery stores,

Two difficulties I have noticed are purchasing items like glue, paint products and anything else the kids like to sniff. The machine stops the check and calls for someone to intervene to approve the sale. Here, I think they could add a drivers license scan (my license from Arizona has a bar code on back) to indicate an adult is the purchaser. The second is the annoyance of the weight-sensitive packing area. Pick up a bag to put in your cart for departure and the machine scolds you and stops the check. Other than this, I love the self-serve lines and will welcome the scanners when they get here.

Janna's note points to the many details and quirks that any new system has to master, some of which, like approving restricted purchases (alcohol, tobacco, and spray paint), still require human intervention. After many trials with the weight-sensitive self-checkout, I've learned that if you ignore the little voice it will shut up and let you continue checking. But reader Charles Compton points out the good reasons behind that sometimes-annoying feature:

A fascinating piece today on your hand-held scanner experience.

Here in Tenessee, the Ingle's supermarket chain last year began installing automated checkout stands, which I find work quite well.

Items are passed over a scanner, then placed in bags on a carousel.

The computer, it turns out, knows not only the item scanned, but the weight of each item. If you scan a half-gallon conatiner of orange juice, the computer expects something weighing roughly 64 ounces to be placed in the bag on the carousel.

That makes it just about impossible to cheat, even accidentally.

The system accepts cash and coins, and credit/debit cards. You can get up to $100 cash back if you use a card.

It also lets you scan your discount card to take advantage of in-store specials.

There was a brief problem with acceptance of the newly redesigned $20 bills, but that's now been fixed.

Overall, the system works so well that for most grocery trips, I don't even have contact with a live person.

It's pretty clear that grocery checkout clerks are going to go the way of bank tellers. They won't disappear altogether, but there will be many fewer of them. Grocery employees will have to add value to the customer's experience, not simply process their purchases.

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