Self-Check Lanes Phasing Out, Ending Grocery Privacy

self checkoutAlbertson's, a Southern and Western U.S. grocery chain, has had enough with self-checkout lanes. Albertson's is pulling its do-it-yourself lanes in about half of its 217 company-operated stores to make way for regular and express employee-operated lanes. (The 450 stores operated by SuperValu get to keep their U-check lanes for now.)

Christine Wilcox of Albertson's told WalletPop, "We're actually almost done with the entire process" of taking out self-checkout lanes from 100 stores; [the balance] either never had self-checkout or had it removed long ago."

By way of explanation, Wilcox told and many other news outlets, "We just want the opportunity to talk to customers more." But lots of customers -- like me -- don't want to talk back, and I fear we're moving just one step closer to the erasure of privacy from grocery stores all together.Take last week. On the way home from my writer's group meeting late Thursday night, my appetite whetted by a glass of wine and great conversation, I stopped at my neighborhood 24-hour Safeway to buy some illicit pleasures: a bottle of wine and some potato chips. Feeling sheepish about my middle-of-the-night dietary choices, I avoided the other customers in the aisles but saw that the self-checkout lanes were closed. So I put my purchases on the one open belt and kept my head down.

We've lived in the neighborhood for a decade, and my chatty husband has made friends with all the checkers -- I'm never excited for a chat with anyone other than very close friends and family at that hour. I glanced at the belt and realized that I had (in contrast) nothing to be ashamed of -- the youngish man in front of me was buying a huge pack of condoms and an extra-large container of lubricant. The older man behind me had nothing but Depends and toilet paper.

None of us wanted to talk about our choices. I suspect now that the self-checkout lanes were closed due to the large proportion of late-night consumers who buy alcohol and cigarettes, items which require human interaction to check IDs. This is why, Time's Brad Tuttle suspects, grocery stores like Alberston's and some Kroger stores are closing down the lanes. Customers who typically use self-checkout lanes might be less inclined to buy such "difficult" purchases as alcohol and produce, and, Tuttle says, "Giving a customer any reason to skip purchasing something is bad for business."

While many customers complain about the annoying automated messages from the computerized checkstand -- a chorus of "unexpected item in the bagging area" or "please remove the item from the bagging area and scan it again" is enough to drive anyone batty -- others welcome the ability to skirt lines and scan and bag items at their own pace. I've often seen a longer wait at the self-checkout lanes than at many of the other lanes. Many customers self-check when they have fewer items or believe themselves to be faster workers than those who collect a paycheck.

Albertson's customers in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas responded to the news with disbelief (and a little relief). Some Facebook commenters were thrilled -- they're happy, for instance, that the decision was made in order to provide better customer service and that it might create more jobs. ("We'll be opening more checkout lanes during peak times, which could add labor hours," Wilcox told us.)

But most said they loved the self-checkout lanes, like customer Deanna Dickinson, who wrote, "I like that they... get me in and out quickly when I have fewer items or just don't want or need to talk to anyone at that moment." One customer brings up my favorite reason for loving self-checkout: "Many Albertson's shoppers use [the] lanes for convenience and on occasion even privacy," wrote Scot Irish.

Extreme couponers like Mark Cavaliere, though, prefer human contact: "Only a cashier can provide the assistance necessary with the frustration of checking out with tons of coupons," Cavaliere wrote on Facebook.

I love the self-checkout lanes for another reason: When I'm shopping with my children, who tend to be a bit rambunctious, I can give them all tasks and have them do math or hold on to the favored item until the very last second without worries that they'll drive the other shoppers in the line (or me) crazy. They love it, and I've noticed that my eight-year-old always comments on how much we spend when we're doing the checkout ourselves. It seems to give him a heightened sense of the relative cost of things, and I've been pleased that he has engaged in my campaign of frugality with his younger brothers. "Put that BACK, Monroe!" he'll tell his four-year-old brother. "Do you realize how expensive that is?"

The grocery stores who are making changes are, as Wilcox says, "baffled" by the interest in this decision and are not interested in discussing any motivation other than great customer service. Kroger, which is taking out self-checkout lanes in some stores as it renovates, is replacing them with Euro-style queues, where customers line up with their groceries in one long line like at banks or porta-potties. The company says it's all about speed: The decision to remove the self-checkout lanes was "in response to shoppers who want to move through quickly with a few items," Kroger representative Gary Huddleston told Maria Halkias of the Dallas Morning News. Some Whole Foods and H.E.B.'s Central Market stores, wrote Halkias, are moving toward the Euro queue option as well.

We've become used to giving up privacy with customer rewards cards that track our purchases, Facebook ads that are offered up based on our "Likes," and Google text ads that "read" our emails to decide what we might want to click on. This is all woozy, virtual privacy, though -- we don't have to look in the eyes of the data analyst who's reviewing our purchases or clicks and say wordlessly, "Yes, I am buying a double pack of pregnancy tests and my oldest son's anxiety medication and a Martha Stewart Living magazine. I'm a multifaceted person."

Grocery checkers know more about you than any other stranger you encounter on a regular basis, and there's no such thing as "grocery store cashier/customer privilege." You're laying your consumption habits right out there on a black conveyor belt and saying "Here I am, protective undergarments, jugs of wine, junk food habits and all. Please don't judge me" and knowing, anyway, they totally are.

But that's not something grocery store corporations are likely even considering. After all, there's no measurable impact of the embarrassment factor, and there's no benefit to the bottom line from the employees' knowledge of the contents of their customers' grocery bags. But for me and probably many others, it is nevertheless a nagging, quiet concern.
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