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Wednesday, July 19, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Self-service checkouts receive mixed reviews

Seattle Times staff reporter

Folks who dash into the grocery store for bread, only to stall in a long cashier's line, will cheer a new addition to convenience technol ogy: self-service checkout stations.

Though do-it-yourself scanning is still new, it's spreading. The Albertson's store at North 130th Street and Aurora Avenue North installed two self-service stations a year ago and four U-Scan Express kiosks went in to the Lake City Fred Meyer store in June. Others can be found at the Federal Way and Puyallup Fred Meyer stores; the company plans to add self-service stations to its Totem Lake store in Kirkland and its Lynnwood store later this year, said Rob Boley, Fred Meyer's assistant vice president in charge of public rela tions.

U-Scan Express machines are currently installed in more than 300 North American stores.

Fred Meyer's self-service stations, open to customers with 15 or fewer items, work like this: Shoppers push a touch-screen monitor and follow the prompts, which direct them to scan the item (with the usual beep), continue sliding it over blue arrows and then deposit it in a bag. A scrolling list of items purchased and their prices appear on the screen. For produce or bulk items, shoppers need to type in a code.

Shoppers pay with debit or credit cards, cash (fed into a bill receptor like those found on vending machines) or check (given to an attendant).

The service is intended as an extra option for shoppers who are accustomed to convenience from such quick choices as automated banking machines and pay-at-the-pump gas stations, Boley said.

"It will not replace the friendly checkers so many shopper prefer to use," he said. "What we told employees is that no hours would be reduced and no jobs lost as a result of these stations being installed."

Don't think it's an easy way to steal or slip past abottle of beer by the underage, either. Codes on alcoholic and tobacco products automatically prompt a nearby attendant to verify the purchaser's age. All bags must stay on a sensitive scale until payment is made so shoppers can't load products they didn't scan or substitute a can of salmon for a can of cat food, for instance.

Like any new technology, the do-it-yourself kiosks received mixed reviews from customers. They work best for quick shoppers with limited food items. Anything out of the ordinary - coupons, check payments, oversized items, clothing with security tags, and some bulk products - require assistance from an attendant.

"For someone who just wants to buy a gallon of milk, it's really fast," said Lena Street, the Lake City store director. Some prefer it because they can bag groceries the way they like, she noted.

"For basic things, it works pretty good," said shopper Lynn Magnuson during a stop at the Lake City Fred Meyer last week. "I liked not waiting in line."

Georgia Foy of Shoreline, an old pro on her fourth run through the self-service station, bought a handful of items. "I love being able to scan things myself," she said. "It just makes it a lot easier."

One gentleman, however, gave up on the station when he had trouble figuring out how to pay for his three scanned items. "To hell with that," he fumed to his wife. "Let's go." He stood in line with a cashier instead.

"The brain doesn't go so fast," laughed one woman, who required an attendant's assistance to figure out how to work the station. "Once they can train older people, I think it will be a good idea."

Some customers become frustrated listening to the kiosk's directions, which explain in English or Spanish what areas to touch on the monitor, said attendant Clara James. Check out goes faster when customers are comfortable with the process and don't have to wait for prompts. Children especially love the scanners and catch on easily, she said.

Still, most shoppers don't plan to give up their day jobs to become cashiers.

"People say, `Now I see what you guys have to go through,' " James said.

Stephanie Dunnewind can be reached at 206-464-2091. Her e-mail address is sdunnewind@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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