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Opinion

Underage drinkers and supermarkets

The ranks of supermarket cashiers are being thinned by technology in the form of self-serve checkout stands. Although customers can’t strike up nodding acquaintances with the computerized machines, many like the convenience. But the union that represents supermarket employees argues that automated checkouts lack more than personality. Despite built-in precautions, the union claims, computerized stations allow underage customers to purchase alcohol.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is backing a bill by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) that would require alcohol purchases to be made at a traditional, staffed checkout stand. But while AB 183, which was approved by the Assembly, might save some union jobs, there is little evidence that it would reduce underage drinking. It would particularly affect the Fresh & Easy grocery chain, which is entirely self-serve.

Automated checkout stands are supposed to lock up when a customer scans alcohol, sending a signal to an attendant that an identification check is needed. But various studies have found that the machines fail to do this in a small percentage of cases. What’s more, customers can sometimes override a freeze by quickly scanning another item or a credit card, researchers reported. Occasionally, even when the machine has done its job, clerks don’t bother to come over to check identification but just override the lock from a distance with a hand-held device.

The most careful and comprehensive of the studies, conducted in 2010 by San Diego State University, sent teams of young adults — who looked even younger than their ages — to a total of 216 stores. It found that for one reason or another, identification wasn’t checked 8.4% of the time at the automated stands. The machines failed slightly more often than that, but observant clerks filled the void in almost all of those cases.

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With a less than 1-in-10 chance of sneaking an alcoholic beverage past the machines, it’s unlikely that underage drinkers would flock to self-checkout lanes. They’re more likely to obtain liquor by getting an adult to buy it for them. For that matter, various studies have found that clerks at regular stands are even more likely than self-check stands to let underage shoppers buy alcohol without an ID check.

But even if the bill were passed, nothing would keep underage customers from at least trying to sneak alcohol past the machines. They could still occasionally override or otherwise fool the machines’ locking mechanism. A more effective approach would be to increase fines for failure to check ID at either type of checkout.

A similar bill was approved by the Legislature last year but vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on AB 183, but the bill should never even reach him. Self-checkout stands might be bad for grocery workers, but for now, they are not a significant source of underage drinking.


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