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Ringing It Up

At a store in Morrow, Ga., supermarket giant Kroger Co. is taking another step with the scanner concept that it pioneered: At two of eight checkout lanes, customers may unload their carts and scan items themselves. The products then travel along a conveyor belt equipped with a sensor to make sure that all items have been “rung up.” The shopper then gets an itemized receipt and pays a cashier.

“It’s a fairly user-friendly system,” said Paul Bernish, a spokesman for Cincinnati-based Kroger. Although Kroger plans to continue testing the nearly 3-year-old program to “work out some of the kinks,” Bernish acknowledged that the company has no plans to expand the idea to its other 1,234 stores.

“We don’t have the manpower and resources to devote to this project,” said Bernish, noting that Kroger has been undergoing a costly corporate overhaul since last September. He added that there is tremendous “expense involved in trying to make a store totally scannable.”

Who likes self-service scanning? Not surprisingly, Bernish said, older customers haven’t taken to it much. But younger shoppers have. “There is a perception that it saves time,” he said.

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Another pilot program could help eliminate what many bargain-minded shoppers dread: the need to clip and keep track of coupons.

In February, 1987, a unit of Citicorp, the New York-based financial company, set up an electronic coupon program with the 18-store Ukrops supermarket chain in Richmond, Va. About 6,500 volunteers received cards to use when shopping. Each month they are also given a list of 40 items for which they can automatically receive cents-off credit.

Each time participants visit a Ukrops store, they hand the card to the cashier, who runs it through a machine. Scanning equipment then captures a record of that person’s purchases. If any items bought are on the electronic-coupon list, the equipment records the deduction.

“For the consumer in the long run, this saves bother on clipping (coupons), and they get $500 per year of coupons,” said William J. Ahearn, a Citicorp vice president. Ukrops gains because it can tailor promotions to individuals or families. And down the road, Ahearn added, Citicorp could benefit by having supermarket customers use debit cards tied to Citibank accounts.

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Talk about precise. Dwayne H. Rapp, operations manager for Stork Symbology in Monrovia, one of about 10 U.S. manufacturers of the bar codes that go on product packages, said each code must be correct to within 4/10,000ths of an inch. But to be on the safe side, Rapp said, “we don’t like to send out any differences plus or minus 2/10,000ths.”

Grocery shoppers may benefit from the increased speed and accuracy that bar code scanning affords, but many cashiers pay a high price for the technology. Many checkout stands require clerks to stretch, reach, bend or stand in uncomfortable positions for long periods. Typically, cashiers move their wrists back and forth over a scanner up to 600 times an hour, in many cases twisting items so that the laser can read the bar code. Over an eight-hour shift, cashiers may handle more than three tons of groceries, according to a United Food and Commercial Workers report on problems stemming from scanner equipment.

As a result of the repetition, many workers suffer from cumulative trauma disorders, or repetitive trauma injuries. Back and shoulder strain and hand and wrist disorders, such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, are common.

One survey of 1,345 members of UFCW Local 899 in Santa Barbara found that 62.5% of female cashiers aged 18 to 49 reported symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, such as pain, numbness or tingling in the hands, wrists or fingers.

When scanners first came on the scene, customers frequently complained that prices rung up at the register often differed from those in advertisements or on shelf tags, frequently in the store’s favor. As supermarkets have gotten better at keeping their in-house computer price lists up to date, the problem has diminished considerably.

But “it took legal action to improve compliance,” contended Nahan Gluck, who carries the unwieldy title of deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures. His agency is responsible for ensuring, for example, that boxes contain as many ounces of cereal as they advertise.

In recent years, investigations by Weights and Measures have led local and state officials to sue several Southland supermarket chains for pricing violations. Some stores have been forced to pay sizable fines for overcharging.


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