Supermarket check-outs pass their sell-by date

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TENS of thousands of supermarket jobs could go in the next "hi-tech" revolution in retailing - the abolition of the check-out counter. Most of the main Britishchains, including Sainsbury, the market leader, are considering replacing check-outs with do-it-yourself versions in which customers use hand-held laser scanners. Safeway is believed to be planning to introduce the system this year though it has officially denied it. The aim is to cut costs and queues, but the price in jobs may be high.

Simon Ragett, a European retail analyst, said: "Suddenly, from having 40 people across the front of a hypermarket ringing things up, you might be down to five just taking the cash."

Another retailing expert, Professor Gary Davies, of the Manchester-based International Centre For Retail Studies, estimates that at least two thirds of retailing jobs could go.

Customers using the system, currently being tested in Holland, are given a magnetic identity card which is swiped through a rack to release a scanner the size of a mobile phone. The customer checks each item directly into a shopping bag and returns the scanner to a recharging bank, where the bill is printed, to be paid at an express check-out.

There is no unloading and reloading of goods, less queuing and if the customer pays by credit or store card, no need to go near the check-out.

The shopworkers' union, Usdaw, which has more than 200,000 members in supermarkets, called moves towards the system "a disturbing trend".

It may prove popular among shoppers however. Professor Davies said: "If you can guarantee people that they won't have a queue at the end of their shopping trip, half the population will fall on your shoulders weeping tears of sheer joy." One survey foundthat people dislike supermarket queues as much as a visit to the dentist.

According to Albert Heijn, the Dutch supermarket group which introduced the system in 1993, it has increased sales and proved so immune to theft that most of the mistakes made by customers are in favour of the store. Random checks also encourage honesty."If you trust the customer they reward you by being extremely accurate," a spokeswoman added.

The "self-scanning system" pioneered at the the Heijn store in Geldermalsen is now being extended to the company's 500 other Dutch stores and to a chain it owns in Ohio. Wendy Wood, of the Oxford Institute of Retail Management, said retailers were experimenting with self-scanning because "everybody is trying to find some sort of competitive advantage"

Faced with increasing competition from discount stores, middle-class grocers like Safeway and Sainsbury see it as a way of holding on to customers; buying patterns can be closely monitored, for example, leading to discount offers or loyalty schemes.

Penelope Ody, editor of Retail Automation, said that Dutch shoppers found self-scanning "quick and easy". She added; "I don't think it's seen by the stores as a means of cutting jobs but of improving service."

Barry Allen, a spokesman for Usdaw, did not think British women would like automated shopping. "Personal contact is quite important for them," he said. "If it meant huge reductions in the price of food there would be some incentives for customers but at the end of the day you find the benefits just go to the bigger businesses."

Death of the Job, page 19