Walmart made April Hubbard's day by replacing its perpetually backed up do-it-yourself checkout lanes this month with six express registers staffed by real people.
"This is faster, easier and provides some jobs," said the St. Petersburg cook, a five-year regular at a Walmart Supercenter at 3501 34th St. S. "It's aggravating when people in front of you cannot figure out how the machine works."
After spreading like a weed for a decade, self-service checkout is being rethought by mass merchants who once saw automation as a cheaper way to handle peak-hour rushes.
Albertsons, which has five stores in the bay area, is purging the last self-checkout registers from all 217 of its stores by year end.
"Self-checkout doesn't offer the customer service level we want," said Christine Wilcox, spokeswoman for Albertsons.
In an accelerated store remodeling program, Winn-Dixie weighs whether to remove self-serve registers if there isn't enough room for them in the reconfigured stores. And Walmart now first looks to other options in new stores and has been removing self-checkout lanes in remodeled stores unless managers see a big customer preference to keep them.
In Florida, Walmart's solution du jour is a single express line maze that feeds eight to 10 cashiers. That shaves 20 seconds off an average transaction.
"We want a human touch," said Shaun Leggett, Walmart Tampa metro market manager.
Retailers, however, have hardly given up on the technology. In fact, self-service checkout transactions are forecast to grow 11 percent to $226 billion this year, according to IHL Services.
"But there is a re-evaluation to fine-tune self-service only where it makes sense," said Greg Buzek, president of IHL, the Franklin, Tenn., research firm that tracks what retailers spend on information technology.
Increasingly, for self-service checkout that's high-volume stores in suburban areas with populations where shoppers are more likely to be tech savvy and most value their time. Studies, however, show self-checkout saves shoppers no time. It just gives them some sense of control as opposed to idling impatiently in line.
Retailers are drawn by the prospect of saving money. They can cut expenses from 15 cents to 9 cents a transaction after paying off the $20,000 installation cost.
Contrary to common belief, theft is no worse in self-serve lanes. A cash register that knows precisely what each product weighs alerts a clerk monitoring the lanes to any abnormalities. Theft soars, however, when store managers, frustrated by too many false alarms, disable the scales under the conveyor belt and sensors built into the bagging platform.
Other chains like Home Depot are sticking with do-it-yourself checkout. They are also adding new checkout options. Three or four expediters at each Home Depot roam the aisles equipped with "First Phones" that can track inventory and fill online orders for pickup. They can also tally credit card transactions when lines at the registers get long. It's a system used in Apple stores and many Urban Outfitters.
Indeed, 52 percent of retailers plan to test portable checkout tablets this year, said Buzek, who predicts that within two years shoppers will be commonly using their smart phones to make credit card transactions.
Self-scanning checkout still has fans, but plenty of detractors, too.
"I don't like them," said Ardith Rutland, an 80-year-old former St. Petersburg merchant who has resisted any urge to try one. "At my age, I don't compute."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.