That time Price Chopper was the first supermarket to install self-checkout

A bit we stumbled over recently while doing history of Price Chopper research: The first supermarket self-checkout station was installed at the Price Chopper in Clifton Park in 1992.

The story of the tech's rollout at Price Chopper was part of a recent NPR Planet Money podcast about the self checkout, which focused the inventor of the devices, a Canadian doctor named Howard Schneider. Here's a clip (from about the 10:30 mark) -- Schneider's just had his pitch somewhat harshly turned down by Stop & Shop and he's discouraged. But he get's a meeting with Price Chopper:

The italics are the hosts talking.

The head person [at Price Chopper] actually saw the machines and he said, "I like it. Let's do it." And after that everyone's very nice.
The CEO says we're not going to buy the machines from you. But you can use one of our stores in Upstate New York as a real world experiment.
And on August 5, 1992, grocery store shoppers what may be, depending on your definition, what we're going to call the first fully-automatic check-out machines.

When Schneider shows up to install the machines, and as the story is told, the union representing cashiers is not happy. And it frames the problem as the machines forcing customers to do more work. But there's also the underlying issue of whether the machines are taking people's jobs. Schneider continues...

The answer is very anticlimactic. Let me tell you what happened at Price Chopper... The machines went in, people used them. And they didn't work. They crashed. People had shopping cars half unloaded and everything stopped.
The store is full of angry people shoppers. And Howard is just sitting there in the middle of all this chaos unscrewing the back of the machine so he can reset it. And the union, they figure they've got noting to worry about. But the store manager, his name is Rick, is not happy.
He says, "I don't know. If these machines crash, I'm throwing them out of the store." I said it will work. I don't know why this happened. It shouldn't have happened. The machines are perfect.

So Schneider stays at the store overnight working on the machines.

The next day, his machines didn't crash. But his machines and the shoppers still needed a lot of handholding. So he has to invent something else: He has to invent the person who stands there next to the self-checkout machine helping customer and fixing the machine.
We drilled some holes in the cabinet so if that you had to reset the machine you could just stick the long screw driver in and hit the reset button. So we gave them a long screw driver. [The person] was very friendly, he'd help them through the orders and that made a huge difference.

The rest of the ep focuses on how Schneider missed out on a big payday for the tech. And why the "checkout of the future" is still some undetermined distance in the future.

As for Price Chopper and self check-out, here's a Supermarket News article from 1995 about the chain's early use of the tech, when it was still trying to figure out whether to expand the machines to other locations. (It would try a few more stores in 1995.)

Of course, you know how that turned out. The machines are now in many stores. And while in our experience they've gotten better and more popular in recent years -- there does often seem to be a customer standing there with a confused look as something won't scan properly.

Comments

The cynical view (to which I sometimes succumb) is that what the supermarket has done is made some of their customers unpaid labor -- a clever outsourcing in a razor-thin margin business.

But, hey, I for one welcome our robot overlords!

I avoid the self-check out line as there is always some variable that makes it not efficient for me since I usually have to get some kind of assistance from the human being overseeing those machines.

What union is Schneider talking about in his quote? Price Chopper is not unionized. (Shop Rite is.)

The end game for these automated processes is to get rid of at least some of the workers. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Pc is not and has never been union. This previous poster is right

Having worked in a store with these things I can tell you the number one appeal of them is the fsct that the store is understaffed and the few human cashiers are overwhelmed. Customers feel forced to use them to get out in a timely manner.

They ticked people off and it has shown itself as one of many factors in PC's slow spiral

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