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Standing in a checkout line is an unnecessary waste of time. It is obvious how a grocery checkout line could be sped up, so why hasn’t it been done? Why, I whine, do I have to think of everything?

The Universal Product Code (UPC) bar-codes have been printed on some grocery store items since 1966 and in 1974 they started to come into common usage. That is over 35 years ago. Why hasn’t someone done the obvious thing, which is to get the customer more involved in the checkout process? At present our local Lucky Supermarket has four scanners which they let the customers use but it doesn’t speed things up much in terms of a clerk’s time because they have a clerk monitoring the whole process. This is necessary to prevent theft and because there are inevitably problems which arise which require some human expertise. One professional clerk can probably scan four times faster than the amateur customers so there isn’t much time or processing time saved by having customer controlled self checkout.

The obvious answer to these problems is to have the customers place their items on the conveyor belt, which they already do, but with a mechanism to scan the items automatically. This could be done most easily by having exact spots on the conveyor belt marked out where the UPC label was to be placed with the UPC code facing directly towards the customer. For example a continuous line drawn along the belt about six inches away from the customer and perpendicular lines drawn across the belt every twelve inches. The customer would place each item on its base with the UPC code bars directly above the intersection of the lines marked on the belt. That is all the customer is required to do.

As the conveyor belt moves the items toward the checkout clerk they pass a scanner mounted on the vertical bar just in front of and beside the customer’s belly. This mounted pre-scanner checks the UPC code and if it meets the store’s criterion for acceptance the device itself swings a bar hinged to the device about halfway across the moving conveyor belt. The accepted item is now on the far side of the moving conveyor belt. However, if an item doesn’t pass the acceptance criterion the bar does not swing out and the item keeps on moving directly along the belt to the clerk. He then deals with the unscanned item appropriately. The  items coming to the clerk are thus prescanned and presorted into scanned, which are already charged to the customer’s account, and the remaining items which need to be dealt with. The only items that must be dealt with by a person are the ones which did not scan automatically.

Jars and cans should mostly be reliably scanned with this automatic UPC scanning system but vegetables would not scan at all and bagged items like potato chips would typically require attention until the UPC codes were repositioned on the packages. Possibly eighty percent of all items would scan automatically, which would permit the clerk to spend more time on other tasks like customer relations and payments.

The whole device could be manufactured as a separate item and fastened near the conveyor belt and hooked into the store’s already existing scanner computer system. The total cost of this device shouldn’t be much more than the price of another scanner per checkout station plus a servomechanism to push the items across the conveyor belt.

Grocery customers would be happier because they would have less wait time. The clerks would spend less time on repetitive tasks and their job would be more interesting. The overall price of the items would be less because of the increased efficiency. Everyone would be a little happier, except for me—I would be a lot happier.