State proposal would curb grocers’ self-checkout lanes

by Stephanie Hoops, Ventura County Star

A bill pulled from the state Senate last week leaves the door open for shoppers to continue buying alcohol at self-checkout lanes in grocery stores.

AB 1060, which would have banned the practice, was supported by such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Consumer Federation of California.

It will be reintroduced next year, according to a spokeswoman for the bill’s author, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate.

Bill Dombrowski, CEO of the California Retailers Association, said the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was pushing it to upset the expansion of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets in California.

‘It’s nothing more than the unions trying to stop a non-unionized retailer from growing in the state,’ he said.

Calls seeking comment from George Landers, executive director of the UFCW Western State Council, were not returned. The union represents thousands of workers at major grocery chains in Southern California, including Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons.

Fresh & Easy stood to lose more than other grocery chains if the bill had passed because its stores operate almost entirely with self-checkout lanes. The company has locations in Oxnard, Simi Valley, Newbury Park, Moorpark and Oak Park. A sixth store is planned for the county at Rose Avenue and Gonzales Road in Oxnard. The stores are operated by British retailer Tesco, which entered the U.S. market in 2007 with openings in Southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

‘Regardless of the status of a bill,’ said Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said, ‘we’re going to continue to educate policymakers about the considerable efforts we have made, both in training and in our systems, to ensure alcohol is only sold to those who can legally purchase it.’

Last week, De La Torre said the union has ‘been supportive of the bill but they are not the sponsors.’

He called the union issue a ‘red herring’ brought up by the opposition.

MADD maintains that underage and intoxicated people can get past the self-checkout systems, and noted there are Web sites promoting the behavior. MADD California spokesman Silas Miers said people can take a 12-pack of soda and a 12-pack of beer to the machines, scan the soda twice and bag the beer undetected. Also, he said, people can bypass the systems, which freeze after scanning alcohol, by immediately swiping a credit card.

The bill drew attention from a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which seeks to advance policies that support technological innovation and economic growth.

Robert Atkinson, ITIF’s founder and president, said his concern with legislative measures designed to limit the use of self-checkout systems is that they would lead to higher prices and reduced convenience for consumers, thereby reducing economic growth.

‘What’s surprising to me about this bill,’ he said, ‘is how many people think it’s about alcohol, which is a cover for what it’s really about. They should just say: ‘We want to save jobs.’ ‘

The California Grocers Association’s CEO Ron Fong said other grocery stores also could be hurt.

‘Safeway and Save Mart are just as opposed to the bill as Fresh & Easy,’ he said last week. ‘That’s because they have the self-assisted checkout stands just like Fresh & Easy. They also have conventional stands but recognize that consumers like the self-assisted system. It’s very popular and for grocers, they want their customers satisfied.’

The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which regulates the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages and would be responsible for enforcing the new law, did not propose the legislation and was not a sponsor of the bill, said Legislative Liaison Chris Albrecht.

De La Torre said the reason ABC was not behind the bill was ‘because they have an overstretched mandate as it is, and are concerned about having to do more.’

David M. Smith, a Pepperdine University labor economist, sees the issue as one that both organized labor and MADD would be legitimately interested in. While he sees legitimate concerns coming from the anti-alcohol groups, organized labor and businesses, Smith doesn’t think there’s enough evidence indicating that self-checkout systems pose more risk than systems operated by people.

‘I think it might be a false assumption that with some limited interaction (from a human) and with technology you couldn’t achieve the same safeguards as with human interaction,’ he said. ‘Clearly, it’s about saving jobs and some see the bill as a potential way to slow the growth of Fresh & Easy, which uses more electronic checkouts and, in fact, California’s been slow to introduce electronic checkouts.’

De La Torre has attempted to get similar legislation passed before. Last year, AB 523 died in a Senate committee. AB 1060 was pulled Friday before it could be voted on. Generally, a move to pull a bill means ‘they don’t think they have enough votes,’ said Public Policy Professor Mike Shires at Pepperdine. It moves to the ‘inactive’ file, he said, and the legislator doesn’t have to re-submit it to bring it back to the floor at a later session.