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Germany

Automated Check-Out Counters Debut in Germany

Self-service check-outs, gradually making an appearance in German stores, might sound like a smart idea to customers. But store employees fear redundancy in times of high unemployment.

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Not at the mercy of check-out clerks anymore

The Düsseldorf-based Metro-Group is at the cutting edge of retail technology. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to install 200 self-service check-out counters -- known as "SB-Kassen" in Germany -- at 50 affiliated Real and Extra supermarkets by 2005.

Recently, a Real store in Mainz became the second in the country to install them, joining another branch in Ratingen, which unveiled the technology -- the first of its kind in Germany -- earlier this year. In doing so, Metro-affiliated stores are following a trend that has already taken hold in the United States and elsewhere in Europe.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, an international consulting company hired by Metro to research the market, all indications show that the innovation will be embraced by German consumers.

Check it out

Customers at a Mainz branch of the Real supermarket-chain no longer have to deal exclusively with (sometimes notoriously cranky) check-out clerks. When they head to the check-out counter, they are presented with a choice: they can either stand in line and have someone scan the goods, or do it themselves. Two weeks ago, four self-service check-out counters were installed at the market. They have since proven to be a huge success with up to 300 customers a day opting to take matters into their own hands.

The technology comes courtesy of NCR, a Dayton, Ohio based company, which also manufactures automated teller machines -- another one of those now indispensable modern conveniences. The project is part of the "Metro-Group's Future Store Initiative".

The idea is simple: a sing-song voice rattles off the cost of items as customers run them through a scanner -- similar to the ones used at traditional check-out counters -- and place them in a bag. At the end, the same techno-pal guides the customer through the payment process, which is done via plastic either with direct debit or credit card.

The developers of the system at NCR have even taken into account the sneaky practices of would be shop-lifters and underage consumers of booze and cigarettes. Each item in the store is carefully weighed and a scale has been installed at the check-in counter. Try and switch a high-price gourmet wine with a cheap variety, and the scale will notice the difference. Also, store employees monitor the check-out and have to approve the sale of cigarettes and alcohol.

What about the middle man?

But is cutting out the middle man, in this case the supermarket checker, the first step in an effort to eliminate supermarket personnel?

No, say representatives from the Metro-Group. They insist the technology is an added service, not something to replace actual people. It is simply meant to relieve overburdened checkers during peak times and help the store run more efficiently -- all, of course, for the benefit of the consumer.

But with unemployment persistently hovering around the 4.2 million mark, the new technology is being viewed with caution by German workers.

At the moment, the technology is, "taking its first baby steps", one employee of the Mainz store told the German television station ZDF. "Eventually it is going to cost jobs," she added. "Otherwise, the company wouldn't be investing so much money."

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