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A self-checkout way of life

Stores add aisles, scanners, and phone apps to encourage customers to pay on their own

Annemarie Carey used her cellphone with a special app to scan the bar code on a baby toy at Magic Beans in Brookline. Annemarie Carey used her cellphone with a special app to scan the bar code on a baby toy at Magic Beans in Brookline. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 4, 2011

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Although she bought plenty, Annemarie Carey’s latest shopping trip to Magic Beans didn’t involve waiting in line or even paying a cashier. After downloading a cellphone app, she simply scanned into her phone the bar codes for a teething giraffe and an activity toy and put in her credit card information. Then she was off.

“It’s dangerous,’’ said Carey, 31, a teacher from West Roxbury, as the ease of spending money on gifts for her baby, Maeve, became clear.

We’ve gotten used to pumping our own gas, printing our own airplane tickets, and answering our own questions on companies’ FAQ pages. Now, increasingly, we’re being urged to check ourselves out of stores. The old cashier’s cry of “Price check!’’ has been replaced with “Would you like to check yourself out today?’’

The practice is everywhere, from library to pharmacy. As Richard Mader, executive director of the Association for Retail Technology, a division of the National Retail Federation, jokes: “You work hard for 35 years and save your money, and you, too, can become a checkout clerk.’’

Self-checkout machines have been around long enough for researchers to study how people react to them. Studies by the IHL Group, a Tennessee-based research firm, found that less than half, 41 percent, of people like self-service machines. On the other hand, a mere 8 percent of the 2,700 people surveyed online from 2005 through 2008 said they would not use the technology.

In 2010, CVS installed about 30 self-checkout machines in Boston-area stores. This year the Boston Public Library plans to add four self-checkout machines to the five it has. Stop & Shop, which has self-checkout lanes in 85 percent of its stores, plans to add them to more in 2011 and beyond, and also plans to add more handheld self-scanning units, which let shoppers scan their groceries as they shop and then pay at a staffed or self-checkout lane.

As for cellphone apps like the one used at Magic Beans, its maker, AisleBuyer, is in talks with national retailers representing more than 8,000 locations, according to Katie Despres, the marketing coordinator. And Mader predicts mobile self-checkout will be “huge.’’

“Innovative companies are rushing to the market with software applications similar to Magic Beans,’’ he wrote in an e-mail, “and with credit card readers consumers can attach to their mobile phone to ease the payment process.’’

In the almost 20 years since the first self-checkout machine appeared — believed to be at a Price Chopper grocery store in Clifton Park, N.Y. — almost 100,000 units have appeared at retailers, said Lee Holman, an analyst at the IHL Group. Now, with growth of self-scanners slowing as stores reach saturation, he said, attention is turning to mobile units.

Retailers say they like self-scanners because they’re cost-cutters that can speed shoppers through the checkout process and allow management to redeploy cashiers to jobs that can’t be done by a machine.

Although some may think that the self-checkout system is more susceptible to theft, studies show otherwise. Theft deterrents on the self-checkout machines include integrated cameras, scales, security tags, and, in some cases, laser analysis of dimensions of the products, according to Greg Buzek, president of IHL Group.

“Our studies show [retailers] lose less with Self-Checkout because most front-end theft at stores is due to employee theft or a customer in partnership with an employee,’’ he said in an e-mail. Shoppers using the Magic Beans app must show an employee an itemized receipt on their phone before leaving the store.

A recent evening at the Shaw’s supermarket in Dorchester found the self-scanning area in full swing, with the full range of shopper talent on display. In lane two, Kristin Bezio, 30, a graduate student from Dorchester, was the picture of efficiency, scanning her ground beef, salsa, lettuce, and Chex Mix without issue. “I like to do things myself,’’ she said.

Like almost every other shopper interviewed, she talked about the machines as if they were human, or at least had an agenda. “Sometimes the scale decides it doesn’t want to recognize something,’’ she said. “Sometimes it gets upset when you bring your own bags and you have to wait for someone to come over and tell it to behave.’’

Nearby, Charlie Gosselin, 15, and Michael O’Neill, 16, sophomores at Boston College High School, were trying without luck to scan a bag of Hostess chocolate frosted doughnuts.

“Unknown item,’’ the machine intoned.

“What?’’ O’Neill said.

“Scan additional items,’’ the machine said.

“What?’’ the boys asked in unison.

Their antagonist persisted. “Approval needed.’’

“What the hell?’’ O’Neill replied. “This is an abomination.’’

Defeated, the boys headed to a lane staffed by a person, explaining that they found the whole experience embarrassing. “I can just picture everyone staring at you,’’ O’Neill said.

The fear of looking stupid or delaying others keeps some people from using self-checkout machines, according to a 2009 study. Researcher Michael L. Capella, an assistant professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business, calls it “stage fright.’’ More embarrassing than slipping on a banana peel, apparently, is not being able to scan the banana in the first place.

Here’s another issue facing self-scanners: They don’t have time to relax, if even for just for a few minutes. This can lead to a drop in impulse purchases of M&Ms, a disappointment for stores, perhaps, but a boon to shoppers. One study estimated the average American woman could lose up to 4.1 pounds a year avoiding those last-minute grabs.

As she scanned baking ingredients at the Stop & Shop in Brookline, Beth Segers, 51, said she missed having time to stand in line and “zone out and read cheesy magazines.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.