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Grocery Shoppers Use Self-Scanners

Story Filed: Tuesday, March 14, 2000 2:05 PM EST

ATLANTA (AP) -- Never mind the paper-or-plastic debate. Here's the new question at grocery stores: Man or machine?

Self-serve checkout systems -- you scan it, you bag it, you pay for it -- are popping up at groceries nationwide. Kroger has U-Scan Express machines in more than 200 stores. Harris Teeter, Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart and smaller grocery chains all have experimented with the systems.

``This is very easy,'' said Laura Walker of Atlanta, who uses a Kroger self-checker around four times a week. ``The lines are shorter, and you can just run through.''

From his post behind a computer screen at a Kroger in midtown Atlanta, Alfonso Jeffery monitors four U-Scan Express machines -- touch-screen terminals with a soothing female voice that guides shoppers through checkout.

She's even polite: ``Thank you for shopping at Kroger,'' she coos.

Self-scanning is efficient and popular, grocers say. But even in an ATM-driven, pay-at-the-pump society, some shoppers have trouble adapting to new technology, as Jeffery can attest.

At one terminal, a man throws up his hands, furious that U-Scan won't recognize his ground beef. At another, a woman shakes her fist at the screen after being shortchanged 5 cents.

Teen-agers try to scan their own booze or cigarettes, but U-Scan will have none of it. The voice firmly asks them to show identification to the clerk on duty.

Others try to sneak an item into their bag without passing it over the scanner. No dice: U-Scan compares the total weight of your bag with the items that have been scanned, alerting a cashier when there is a discrepancy.

``You can't sneak anything by it,'' Jeffery said

The systems, introduced by Montreal-based Optimal Robotics Corp. in 1995, have grown incredibly popular in the past 18 months, the company reports.

Revenues for Optimal Robotics shot up 427 percent last year, to $29.6 million. And the company's stock, which was trading for less than $10 on the Nasdaq exchange a year ago, was trading around $35 on Tuesday.

So far, Kroger has received an overwhelmingly positive response from customers, said company spokeswoman Susie Brower. ``They love it.''

The Cincinnati-based company ``definitely'' plans to expand the service, particularly because it helps cut staffing needs during the current tight labor market, Brower said. One cashier can oversee four checkout lanes.

The new scanners aren't for everybody, said Stephen Doheny-Farina, a professor at Clarkston University in Potsdam, N.Y., who studies how new technology changes communities.

``The gadget freaks jump to it. They're intrigued by it,'' he sad. ``But you end up with people who will just never do it. My mother still will not pump her own gas.''

Rest assured, grocers say: The human cashier is far from obsolete. Too many shoppers prefer a friendly face to a computer screen.

``Some of them have been shopping here for years. They're used to the conversation,'' cashier Terrell Thompson said. ``It took a while to get used to not having a person talking to them while they scanned their groceries.''

Thompson far prefers working as a traditional cashier to monitoring the self-checkers.

``I can talk to them,'' he said. ``They can feel a sense of warmth instead of'' -- he frowns and gestures to the machines -- ``Her.''

The cashiers have even given her a name: Miss Kroger.

That voice guides customers through checkout by giving them touch-screen prompts.

Any coupons? The system scans those, too. Paying by cash, credit, debit? U-Scan accepts bills and coins like soft-drink vending machines do, and its card swipers are just like the ones at the end of most regular checkout lanes.

Tricky produce? The machines automatically weigh fruits and vegetables, assigning prices when customers punch in code numbers for each food type.

But Miss Kroger isn't perfect: In Lexington, Ky., a U-Scan system rejected redesigned $20 bills.

Cashiers assigned to watch the systems can clear up most problems by touching prompts on their own screen. And there's one important thing the voice can't do, cashiers say.

``She can't say goodbye,'' Thompson said. ``She can't say, 'Have a good day.' She can't talk to the little babies.''

That's no problem for some shoppers. They say the self-scan machines save time, hassle and mindless chatter. At the midtown Atlanta Kroger, a pilot store for U-Scan in metro Atlanta, up to 800 customers a day scan their own groceries.

Most self-scanners are designed to handle customers who use express lanes, carrying 15 or fewer items. But Optimal Robotics spokeswoman Robin Jaffe said the company soon will roll out a U-Scan model designed for six to eight bags.

Karen Katz, who was buying a box of Lucky Charms for her 4-year-old son Ian, said she realizes she's missing out on old-fashioned interaction between clerks and customers.

``I do recognize some of the cashiers,'' she said, ``but it's just not like a neighborhood grocery store anymore.''

On the Net: Optimal Robotics Corp.:

Copyright ) 2000 Associated Press Information Services, all rights reserved.

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