The self-checkout stations at Giant Eagle stores in recent weeks have been off limits to shoppers who aren't using the chain's loyalty card.
The company isn't blaming concerns about theft for the new policy, but some industry observers say that could be a factor as the O'Hara grocer -- like many other retailers -- tinkers with its use of the technology that swept the industry over the past decade.
"That aspect of fine-tuning has been going for a year and a half or so," said Lee Holman, a retail analyst with IHL Group in Franklin, Tenn. In the past couple of years, Ikea was reported to be pulling back on self-checkout along with some grocers in other parts of the country. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, was adding more self-checkout stations.
In response to a query, Giant Eagle confirmed it began rolling out technology that requires the use of a loyalty card in self-checkout. "Scanning a Giant Eagle Advantage Card ensures that customers receive all available weekly specials, fuelperks!, personalized register coupon offers and other savings, while also making available vital customer contact information in the instance of a product recall," according to a statement emailed by spokesman Dick Roberts.
The statement added that for people who don't have one of the grocer's loyalty cards, "a store team member will be happy to assist with the checkout process."
Mr. Roberts, who reported that statistics show nearly all Giant Eagle loyalty card holders pull it out in the self-checkout line, also said the new system lets the company follow up with customers who have an "incomplete or incorrect transaction (i.e. mistakenly paid an incorrect amount for an item), or an issue with a payment method."
A spokesman for the region's Shop'n Save stores said none of those that offer self-checkout require customers to use the chain's Perks loyalty card.
Overall, Mr. Holman at IHL said use of self-checkout technology has continued to grow in recent years, but individual retailers have had time to gather and analyze data to understand how it works for their particular clientele.
They may also be getting a better sense of what's not working well, said Malay Kundu, founder of StopLift Checkout Vision Systems in Cambridge, Mass. His company sells systems that use computer scanning technology to identify potential problems at checkouts, such as employee or customer theft.
Mr. Kundu said Giant Eagle isn't the only one looking at requiring loyalty cards at self-checkout. "I know of other retail chains that have considered this as a way to clamp down on theft," he said. But he's not entirely sure loyalty cards will help. StopLift's data show 45 percent of customers who steal, maybe by leaving unscanned items in their baskets or by just pretending to scan items, voluntarily use their loyalty cards.
Theft isn't the only concern, he said. If there are too many times when the self-checkout machine turns on its light so a worker has to come help, that slows everything down and defeats the original purpose of the technology.
At the National Retail Federation's annual convention in January, StopLift was part of a demonstration showing off a new product that uses computer scanning technology to identify honest mistakes. If someone sets keys or a purse down, the system is supposed to know that is not worth stopping the process to call for help.
A certain percent of the population will always refuse to use self-checkout for a variety of reasons, Mr. Holman said. But neither he nor Mr. Kundu see much chance the technology will disappear.
"This is basically a growing pain," Mr. Kundu said. "They are still relatively new."
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018. First Published April 3, 2013 4:00 AM