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Self-Serve Supermarkets in Pa.

May 11, 1999

RICHBORO, Pa. (AP) _ Julie Lawson’s two young children LOVE to go grocery shopping since their suburban Philadelphia supermarket installed automatic check-out machines.

Six-year-old Bud and 4-year-old Julia slide pop-tarts and tomatoes and milk cartons across a scanner, listen for the computer voice to announce the price then put their goodies into bags. All without the help of an employee.

``When you have to drag these two around on errands, it’s great to be able to do your own thing at your own pace,″ Mrs. Lawson said Monday at the SuperFresh in Richboro. ``They love it so much, they do not let me use the regular line.″

Self-serve checkouts are the latest in a tidal wave of automation that has already overtaken banking, investing and pumping gas.

Auto-checkout machines are in about 300 supermarkets around the country, most installed in the past few months. In addition, they are being tested in Wal-Mart and other department stores.

``It allows shoppers to take control of the check-out process,″ said Michelle Logan, spokeswoman for Productivity Solutions Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., the leading maker of automatic checkers.

Self-checkout works like a regular cashier, with a few anti-theft additions. The customer slides each item over a laser scanner, puts it on a conveyer belt _ which weighs each one _ then lets each roll under a camera that measures it.

The weighing and measuring prevents theft by comparing each item to computer information about everything in the store. The final bagging area also includes a scale, where the total weight must match the sum of the items purchased.

Customers then get a receipt and pay a human cashier, though some of the newer auto-checkouts include a machine to take cash or use a credit card.

The system isn’t foolproof. On a recent visit to a SuperFresh, customers had problems scanning a gallon of milk, a single bread roll (she looked in a check-out manual to find the cost), a 12-roll pack of paper towels (too big to fit under conveyer belt) and six ears of corn.

``She didn’t say there were six ears there, and the computer knows how much an average ear weighs so it was confused,″ employee Bill Hunter said, after rushing to the aid of the customer.

Overall, shoppers were pleased.

``I always use this. I’m always in a hurry and don’t want to waste time waiting in line,″ shopper Alex Mathews of Richboro said.

Marybeth Malloy of Churchville said the self-serve aisles may not be faster, since she’s a slow scanner, but she said it feels faster. ``I hate standing in the line. This way, it at least feels like I’m doing something.″

The Richboro store hasn’t reduced employee hours because of the new machines, instead keeping more lanes open, store manager Charles Swartz said. The union representing store workers said they had been notified before the change, but they didn’t object, saying it makes workers’ jobs easier.

``I find the day goes faster,″ said Hunter, who preferred supervising four self-checkout aisles Monday to working at a regular cash register.

Eventually, the machines will be used to make up shifts that are hard to staff or to fill vacancies at understaffed stores, said Andy Carrano, spokesman for Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., SuperFresh’s parent company. A&P said the self-checkout aisles account for about 30 percent of business at the 50 test stores.

Customers should get used to dealing with a computer instead of a person, economist Jeremy Rifkin said.

``The bottom line here is that the cheapest worker in the world will not be as cheap as the technology coming on line to replace them,″ said Rifkin, who predicts automation will replace a majority of the 3.5 million supermarket workers nationwide by 2020.

Still, some people aren’t ready to give up human cashiers.

``I’m a people person. I still enjoy when people check me out and help me,″ said Susan Wexler of Richboro.

Nonetheless, she was using the auto-checkout because, ``It’s faster than waiting in long lines when they have only one cashier open.″

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