Human touch trumps self service for Mass. supermarket chain

— -- A Massachusetts-based supermarket chain is the latest grocery to pull out its self-service checkout lanes.

Big Y, which has 61 Massachusetts and Connecticut stores, opened self-serve lanes in 2003 to speed up the checkout process and save money. But a study found that the opposite has happened.

Checkout times have lengthened as customers struggle with bar codes, coupons and payment methods. And the lanes can't replace the service provided by a real human being, Big Y says.

The company says the self-serve lanes will be phased out of its stores by the end of the year, and standard service lanes will be added.

Over the past three years, supermarket chain Albertsons LLC, which owns and operates 217 stores in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and Utah, has done away with self-serve lanes in all its stores , says spokeswoman Christine Wilcox.

"We wanted all of our customers to have a personal experience as they were leaving," she says.

The 460 Albertsons stores operated by Supervalu are keeping self-service lanes.

Grocery chain Kroger received some media attention this summer when one of its Houston stores announced plans to replace self-serve lanes with smaller "metro style" express lanes during a remodel.

The metro style checkout caters to customers with smaller baskets and has them wait in one line, where they can be directed to multiple cashiers. The method saves time and space, says spokesman Keith Dailey. Six metro lanes can fit in the space taken up by two standard checkout lanes.

But company-wide, Kroger has no intention of phasing out self-checkout, Dailey says. Of Kroger's 2,439 stores, a "significant majority" have it, he says.

Kroger is experimenting with the next wave of self-serve technology.

A pilot program at a Cincinnati-area store has customers using the "scan, bag, go" system, which presents them with an electronic scanner when they enter the store, allowing them to scan items as they shop. The system keeps a running tab of their purchases and lets customers bag as they go.

The program has received positive feedback, Dailey says. He says it's especially appreciated by customers on a budget because they can keep a running tally of what they're spending.

"We believe it's important to offer customers a continuum of checkout options," he says.

Contributing: Associated Press