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Checking you out

CVS cites speed, savings with self-service terminals, but for some stores, it doesn’t register

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / December 9, 2011
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Jocelyn Rivera has noticed something missing lately on her weekly visit to the CVS/pharmacy in Jamaica Plain: people behind the counter.

“It’s super-weird that you don’t see employees,’’ Rivera said. “I usually stopped and talked to them.’’

CVS Caremark Corp., the nation’s second largest drugstore chain, has been replacing human cashiers with unmanned checkout terminals at some stores in key urban markets, including Boston. Self-checkout machines are being added as part of a redesign of some CVS stores, which are also expanding their food sections. The self-scanners help to save labor costs, according to analysts. CVS cited another reason for the switch: to make shopping faster and more convenient for customers.

“We found that in urban markets, our customers shop our stores much more like a general store than a drugstore,’’ said Erin Pensa, director of public relations for CVS, in a statement. Self-checkout machines “make it easier for shoppers to get in and out of the store and have greatly reduced ‘rush hour’ lines,’’ Pensa said.

By the end of this year, CVS expects to complete redesigns in 420 of its 7,300 stores nationwide. The company declined to say how many of the revamped stores are in Massachusetts.

The trend toward self-checkout lanes is more than a decade old, led at first by supermarket chains like Stop & Shop, which introduced the machines in 1999 and now has them in 85 percent of its stores.

But some stores have reconsidered. Big Y Foods Inc., which has 60 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, began removing all of its self-service lanes this fall after internal research found that customers preferred a friendly cashier - and after employees complained that the machines were confusing and created more work.

“What we were hearing from our store associates was, ‘We can do this quicker and faster if we do it ourselves,’ ’’ said Big Y spokeswoman Claire D’Amour-Daley.

Some local CVS customers, including Rivera, said they miss the interaction with cashiers, and sympathized with employees who have lost hours. “It takes away opportunities for them to work,’’ she said.

But construction worker Anthony Santiago is a fan. “It’s faster,’’ he said, as he used a machine in the Jamaica Plain CVS to buy Theraflu last week. “When you have a cashier, you wait too long.’’

A recent survey by NPD Group found that self-scanning lanes accounted for 35 percent of all transactions at grocers that had them. Boston analysts said that the self-service registers bring labor-related savings to the company; the machines reduce the number of cashier hours as shoppers scan and bag their own goods.

“It’s a cost issue,’’ said Ronald C. Curhan, an emeritus business professor at Boston University. “You can have one clerk there, supervising a group of four registers because customers do come up with questions that they can’t easily solve at the register . . . Clearly, they have found it economical to put in the registers.’’

In the past year, David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University, noticed that customers - including him - were ringing up more of their own purchases at the Downtown Crossing CVS store. “It’s another sign of how we are shedding ourselves of entry-level jobs that provide income to people,’’ said Yamada.

On his blog, Yamada wrote about the issue, saying, “Now we’re seeing how even those jobs can be rendered obsolete, or at least less necessary.’’

The increase in the do-it-yourself lanes at CVS began as the chain unveiled a new ad campaign promoting the company’s personal connection with customers. The national spots, produced by Boston-based ad agency Arnold Worldwide, featured pharmacists bantering with customers about their store experiences.

Rivals aren’t following CVS’s strategy. Walgreen Co. does not have any self-checkout stations at its Walgreens stores in Massachusetts, and there are no plans to install them, a company spokesman said.

At the CVS in Jamaica Plain last week, Curtis Henderson was having some trouble with the self-checkout lane. He forgot to place his shavers and bag of mints on a scale to scan them. An employee spotted a troubled Henderson and helped him.

“I don’t particularly like it. It’s another couple of steps. It slows you down a bit,’’ said Henderson. “People like service, and that’s what brings you back, just like when you go to a restaurant. That’s what it’s about - friendly people and a little conversation.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

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