PITTSBURGH SHOP 'N SAVE CHECKS OUT SELF-CHECKOUT

NEWCASTLE, Pa. -- A new Shop 'n Save here has been testing for two weeks self-checkout technology as the latest convenience in self-service.Since the store's opening on April 29, owner Vic Wukits has been encouraging customers to try out the self-checkout terminal to gauge overall acceptance of the new technology."I want to get a feel for how people will react to it right now, but it's here to stay,"

NEWCASTLE, Pa. -- A new Shop 'n Save here has been testing for two weeks self-checkout technology as the latest convenience in self-service.

Since the store's opening on April 29, owner Vic Wukits has been encouraging customers to try out the self-checkout terminal to gauge overall acceptance of the new technology.

"I want to get a feel for how people will react to it right now, but it's here to stay," Wukits said. "It's great for customers who want confidentiality and for those who don't trust human beings to add up their items."

The security features appear to be working properly, he noted. When Wukits attempted to circumvent the scanner and place an item directly into a bag, "the machine caught me," he said. A prerecorded voice stated, "Place only purchased items in bag," alerting customers that self-service transactions are not based upon the honor system alone.

The system correlates the precise weight that corresponds to a particular item and reconciles that data with the weight added to the bag, which sits atop a sensitive scale. Alerts are triggered when discrepancies indicating errors or attempted theft occur, such as scanning a bag of rice cakes but placing expensive meat into the bag instead. The weight differences need not be so drastically different to activate the security system.

Shop 'n Save's self-checkout terminal reads bar codes on products, accepts cash payment and signals a manager to authorize sale of age-restricted items, such as cigarettes and alcohol. It can also accept credit, debit or ATM cards, but it can't process checks. Any number of items can be run through the self-checkout terminal, or so-called S.C.O.T., which can weigh produce, calculate its price, and has enough space to fill two bags of groceries at a time.

While the self-service trend has been impacting American business for years to promote customer convenience, help reduce labor costs and alleviate labor shortages, technology and demand may at last be converging in the same aisle for supermarkets with self-checkout systems.

"The self-checkout terminal is always going to be accurate, and it can't call in sick," Wukits said. He says about the self-checkout system, developed by NCR, the Dayton, Ohio, "This is not to replace cashiers, but it allows us to supplement labor." Wukits adds that because Shop 'n Save is open 24 hours, one of the advantages of self-checkout technology is that it allows the store to open another checkout aisle in the middle of the night. "We have a tremendous problem in the market with getting enough labor, so if this system frees up cashiers it's a very good thing."

And so far, Wukits noted, the acceptance rate for this self-checkout terminal is favorable. "It's really designed for the customer with 25 items or less." And it works fast. He said there are some customers who will love it and will adapt to it faster, and some who won't go near it.

Despite initial reservations, many consumers eventually come to accept self-service systems like the automated gas pump, which is now ubiquitous. Likewise, Wukits believes that while people may initially hesitate to use the self-checkout terminal, they quickly find it both user-friendly and convenient. He said one 8-year-old girl knew exactly how to move through the line. "Nowadays young people in school are learning how to operate these machines easily."

While the self-checkout terminal is probably three or four times more expensive than a conventional cash register set-up, Wukits expects this price to plummet as the technology catches on. Just like scanners, once production reaches a certain point, the prices come right down, he notes.

In terms of usage, he notes, self-checkout services have been tested in other supermarkets, where they saved as much as 25% in total sales. Giant Eagle, the region's dominant grocer, reportedly plans to start testing two different self-service systems this June. Wukits, who owns two other Foodlands, may soon try out his self-checkout terminal there as well.