Self-Scanners Growing in Popularity

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Self-Scanners Growing in Popularity

NEW YORK -- Love them or hate them, self-scanners, first introduced in grocery stores in the late 1990s, aren't going away. In fact, as the technology improves and customer acceptance increases, more retailers, and not just grocers, are installing them, helping to trim their costs and giving shoppers more control over how they check out of a store.

"It's going to become the norm rather than an anomaly," said Ralph Jacobson, executive marketing manager for IBM's retail division in Raleigh, where IBM self-scanning technology is created. IBM, U-Scan, NCR and PSI are among the industry leaders.

There are at least 10,000 self-scanning machines in use throughout the country, and the industry expects the number to double in the next four years. The Food Marketing Institute estimates that this year 29 percent of grocers will implement some type of self-scanner in stores. That's up from 6 percent in 1999.

Home Depot is adding new self-scanners at about 800 stores. And Harris Teeter has been so pleased with the response, the grocer is adding more.

At first, self-scanners were the last resort for brave shoppers with just a few items -- people who were willing to try something new and risk being made to look foolish by some newfangled technology. But as shoppers embraced the technology, scanners increasingly have become accepted by customers with a week's worth of groceries to check out. Retailers have responded by installing systems to handle more items.

"In some locations we're seeing there's so much acceptance, there are now lines at the self-checkout areas," Jacobson said.

Fans like the scanners for the convenience and control. They can skip long lines at traditional registers. They can bag their groceries just the way they want. And they don't have to interact with store employees if they don't want to.

Although technology is evolving and improving, customers still complain about difficulties using the systems. During busy periods, sometimes it's hard to get the supervisor charged with fixing problems to juggle the demands of the multiple scanners.

And produce remains a stumper. Since most produce doesn't have bar codes, shoppers must key in codes or push screen buttons to find the item. Some shoppers would rather not bother. "I like being able to talk to the cashiers and look at the magazines in line," said 40-year-old Cindy Peterson. "I never use the scanners. They scare me."

And some retailers also are snubbing the technology. Target, for one, has no plans to install the machines anytime soon. "One of our models in the store is guest services," said Brie Heath, a spokeswoman for the discounter. "We are aware of the technology, but they don't fit who we are as a company. We like that personal one-on-one communication with the guests."

Installing the scanners costs about $100,000 for four checkout lanes, double the cost of a traditional checkout system. But the savings usually make up for the extra cost in a little more than a year, according to industry studies. Self-scanners can save retailers more than 200 labor hours a week, Jacobson said.