Las Vegas stores not bagging self-serve checkouts

Teresa Speranza uses the self-serve checkout lanes at her neighborhood Smith’s Food and Drug in North Las Vegas when she has only a few items.

"It’s faster than waiting behind somebody," she said.

Speranza was one of dozens of shoppers speeding through the eight do-it-yourself check stands at the Smith’s at 2255 E. Centennial Parkway. The store also has eight cashier-assisted lanes, which were equally busy on a Monday afternoon.

Some grocery store chains nationwide are bagging the do-it-yourself option in the name of customer service.

Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out the self-serve lanes. Some other regional chains and major players, including some Albertsons locations, have reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks at traditional registers.

Self-serve lanes will remain a staple at grocery stores in Southern Nevada, however. All 34 Las Vegas-area Albertsons stores are owned by SuperValu Inc., which has no plans to eliminate the service, company representative Lilia Rodriguez said. Albertsons LLC, which announced earlier this year that it planned to reduce its self-serve lanes by one-third, is an unrelated company.

Nor is Smith’s planning to scrap self-serve at its 35 stores in Southern Nevada.

Smith’s spokeswoman Marsha Gilford said the company’s research shows that customers like having options.

"Customers very much like the choice of self-checkout. Sometimes it’s because they like to use the technology or they like to control how the items get put in the bag," Gilford said.

Some customers say it’s faster to use the self-serve scanners for quick runs.

Cameron Ely, another customer on Monday at the North Las Vegas Smith’s , said he likes to grab his items and leave, especially when he has his two children in tow. Ely said his wife never uses the self-serve lane, but when he does the shopping (rarely, he admits), Ely prefers the do-it-yourself method.

"I’m more of a five, seven (item) kind of guy," he said.

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets is also committed to self-serve checkout at its 21 Southern Nevada locations. The company relies on "advanced checkout technology" that allows all of its customers to check out entirely without cashier assistance, Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said, and is sticking with its business model.

Wonnacott said customer feedback is positive.

"It speeds up their checkout experience (and) gives them the choice of how much help they need," Wonnacott said in an email.

Supermarket chains started introducing self-serve lanes about 10 years ago, touting them as an easy way for shoppers to scan bar codes, pay, bag their bounty and be on their way. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts.

The reality, though, was mixed. Some shoppers were quick converts; others outright hated the idea.

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions nationwide in 2010 were at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That is down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Overall, people reported being much more satisfied by human interaction.

Phil Lempert, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based food industry analyst, said that supermarkets have other reasons to get rid of the self-serve lanes. They will need to replace their checkout computers to read newly emerging types of bar codes, so there’s little business sense in keeping self-serve machines if they’re not well-used. Over time, he said, the growing use of smartphones to read bar codes probably will change everything.

Gilford said Smith’s shoppers, particularly younger ones, are comfortable with technology and the grocery chain plans to keep evolving.

"People may be surprised to know how computerized all of our business is in the grocery store business," Gilford said. "Even our heating and air conditioning systems can be controlled by a laptop here in the office."

But not all supermarket shoppers share that mentality, and whether they embrace or reject the self-serve option may come down to demographics — such as whether they’re in a tech-savvy region — and other factors that the supermarkets cannot control.

"I think some of the stores are just deciding that, on the balance, it’s a negative. Other stores, because they have a different composition of shoppers, are deciding to keep it," John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said of the self-serve option.

"I don’t think this is as much a referendum on the technology as much as it is a match between the technology and the customer base," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Caitlin McGarry at cmcgarry@lvbusinesspress. com or 702-387-5273.

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