Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Big Brother wants to stop you from buying alcohol in self-service checkout lanes

Although it's unlikely that teens buy booze through self-service checkout lanes with video cameras and attendants, those lanes are a convenient way to purchase groceries. If a minor buys booze and gets a DUI, that could be a problem in California.

So anti-alcohol folks are fighting with the supermarket industry and community groups over how alcohol can be sold at the grocery store. The California Senate is set to begin debating a bill today that would force supermarkets to route all alcohol sales through live cashiers, who could ensure that buyers are sober and of legal drinking age. That may cut down on DUI arrests in California.

California prohibits sales of cigarettes, spray paint and some over-the-counter medications in self-service checkouts so some want to make it impossible for minors to obtain them. The legislation goes against the grain of previous alcohol regulation in California, which has among the most consumer-friendly laws in the nation. If approved, the legislation would also would have an outsize effect on Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores. That chain, which uses self-service checkout exclusively, would have to adjust its model or give up lucrative alcohol sales.

Self-service checkout systems are growing in popularity. Shoppers run the items across a scanner and place them in a bag on an electronic scale. The machine checks to see whether the weight of the product matches what was scanned to keep customers honest. Consumers like the convenience, and supermarkets save on labor.

When a shopper buys alcohol, the devices are programmed to freeze the transaction until a clerk confirms the age of the buyer. But these safeguards failed or were ignored by supermarket staff almost 20% of the time, according to a April test of Southern California food stores by UCLA's Community Economic Development Clinic and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

Cheating is so easy that websites and blogs are devoted to helping teens game the system. The tips include explaining how to scan nonalcoholic beverages such as six-packs of soda and swap them for beer (note to hooch hustlers: This is theft) and how to time a credit card swipe to override the system.

Some blogs advise which days and times are likely to be the busiest for clerks supervising self-check counters, allowing more opportunity for subterfuge. But some say they have worked out technology glitches and increased staff training so that minors are no more likely to successfully buy alcohol through self-check than they are through full-service lines.

Present laws requiring retailers to check the identification of anyone they suspect is a minor and to refuse sales to intoxicated individuals are sufficient to control the problem.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is concerned about underage drinking but doesn't believe self-check counters contribute to the problem, said Chris Albrecht, the agency's legislative liaison. The department is not supporting the bill and believes there are adequate controls in place.

Though the legislation would not present much of a problem for traditional supermarket chains, which sell most goods through full-service checkout lanes, it would present a large obstacle for Fresh & Easy because it operates only self-check lanes.

Tesco, the giant retailer that owns Fresh & Easy, has had problems with self-service checkout systems in its native Britain. This year it paid about $10,000 in fines to British regulators for alcohol sales to minors.

Fresh & Easy is working with the grocers association to lobby against it. Safeway Inc., which owns Vons, also is against the questionable bill.