State bill aims to halt sale of booze at self-checkout stands

by Michael Gardner, San Diego Union Tribune

SACRAMENTO ‘ A move to ban alcohol sales at market self-checkout counters in California is being fueled by two San Diego studies that suggest they make it easier for underaged buyers.

Legislation to enact such a ban could come up on the state Senate floor as early as Wednesday.

While all supermarkets would have to comply, the proposed law could force the most dramatic shift at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores where all lanes are self-checkout. The chain has several outlets in San Diego County.

The push to crackdown on what some believe is a growing avenue for people under 21 to obtain alcohol has gained union support. Critics of Assembly Bill 1060 say the unions are motivated more by the fear that self-service lanes are costing jobs than anything else.

‘Obviously, the union has targeted our stores,’ said Brendan Wonnacott, a spokesman for the nonunion Fresh & Easy chain.

Unions deny that and other supporters, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the California Police Officers’ Association and the Consumer Federation of California, say that’s not their concern.

They cite two new surveys taken in San Diego County that suggest underage buyers can easily subvert safeguards to obtain alcohol because in many supermarkets just one clerk oversees several self-checkout registers. Among other things, the reports detailed cases when identification wasn’t checked.’I was surprised how easy it was to dupe the system,’ said Art Rathgeber, a 21-year-old San Diego State University student who participated in a study.

The bill had languished for a year until the surveys emerged to provide fresh evidence.

‘The studies really make the case,’ said Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, who is carrying the measure.

One survey sponsored by the Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry in San Diego was carried out in response to a rash of alcohol-related related accidents locally. Several young adults from its Youth Council ages 21 to 23 fanned out to 29 unidentified retail outlets in San Diego County on Aug. 4, in some cases using diversionary tactics to avoid being carded.

‘The results were very alarming,’ said John Hughes, its executive director.

Ten percent of the time they were not asked for identification. They also scanned one item of equal weight, such as soda, then placed the alcohol in the cart. The ploy succeeded in 69 percent of the visits.

A separate, more comprehensive five-county survey was conducted by the Center for Alcohol and Drug Studies at San Diego State University. The research assistants, aged 21 to 23, visited 216 stores in Southern California over a period of two weeks in June.

Among the findings: 8.4 percent of the time participants were not asked for ID, and 27 percent of the time they worked around the registers by quickly scanning another item.

That report also found that frequently there was no personal interaction between the store clerk and the customer, making it easier to avoid carding and a sobriety check. Supermarkets also are required to ensure that buyers are sober.

John Clapp, director of the SDSU center, said the results point toward a need to treat alcohol much like cigarettes, which in most larger stores are kept locked and can only be retrieved by clerks.

Fresh & Easy, as well as chains such as Henry’s Farmers Market, Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons,? conduct extensive training for clerks who oversee self-checkout lanes.

Scanners are supposed to freeze when the bar code reads an alcoholic beverage. That way, the clerk must confirm whether the customer is at least 21 before the transaction can continue. Some stores, however, have one clerk for as many as six registers. At times, the scanner is unlocked remotely.

At Fresh & Easy, where the lines are called ‘assisted checkout,’ clerks stationed nearby must tap the approval key at the register.

That provides sufficient safeguards that the age and sobriety are checked, said Wonnacott, the chain’s spokesman.

He said he had not seen the studies, but argues that the markets are vigilant not only to abide by the law, but because too much is at stake economically to be lax. Supermarkets could be fined or even lose their valuable liquor license if minors or the inebriated are allowed to buy alcohol.

‘It jeopardizes your ability to sell alcohol,’ Wonnacott said. ‘It doesn’t make sense to allow these types of transactions to occur.’

The California Grocers Association, representing 500 retailers, said alcohol sales account for about 10 percent of volume.

‘Our liquor licenses are paramount to our business,’ said Ron Fong, its president.

Even first-offenses can carry a fine of up to $3,000.

Thus far, the enforcer of the state’s alcohol laws reports that its decoy operations haven’t uncovered problems at self-check counters. Stephen Hardy, director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, has come out against the bill.

Requiring alcohol sales would force stores to have a separate line, which could inconvenience customers and add to costs, Wonnacott said.

Fong said the biggest problem is not minors buying alcohol, but adults who make the purchase and then turn it over outside.

Some critics suggest the effort to impose a ban is a ploy to protect union jobs.

‘The union lobbyists are involved, no doubt,’ Fong said.

Barry Broad, a Sacramento attorney and union representative, has been outside the Senate chambers lobbying for the bill. He denied that Fresh & Easy is being singled out, noting the diverse support for the bill.

‘They wouldn’t be for it if it was simply a labor issue in disguise,’ Broad said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill.