Common sense on the self-checkout line

Alcohol purchases should be managed by store policy, not needless legislation

Who would ever doubt a 19-year-old in overdrive might try to buy beer illegally from a Safeway in Oregon? All the teen would have to do, say those who are worried about it, is swipe a six-pack of Pepsi at the self-checkout machine and then place into the bag a preferred brew instead.

But there's a hitch: The minor's caper would need to go unseen by the grocery clerk who's supervising the four- or eight-station checkout area. And what might seem like an easy scam would really amount to stealing in a public, supervised area. Even a 19-year-old caught up in supposed invincibility might recognize the stupidity of the effort.

Now the Legislature, otherwise occupied with the hefty public challenges of PERS reform and school finance, considers a bill that would made it illegal to purchase a six-pack of beer at the grocery store self-checkout. House Bill 2398 would require that all alcohol products be purchased by customers in a face-to-face encounter with a clerk at the conventional checkout.

The belief is that more minors would be carded, the Pepsi scam would be impossible and more adult drunks would be recognized as impaired and declined their purchases. Significantly, the union representing grocery clerks argues the rule would help clerks avoid getting fired for making the mistake of allowing sales to minors or adult drunks, a criminal misdemeanor offense that prevents their rehiring down the line.

Adequately enforcing the legal age of alcohol possession at 21 makes great sense. Underage binge drinking, in particular, is rampant and linked to widely known health and public safety risks. But House Bill 2398 has nothing to do with underage drinking or stepped-up protections for minors — or, for that matter, helping to keep impaired adults from expanding their risks. Instead, it would legislate grocery store management in a time of technologic advancement. It should be defeated.

The self-scanning checkout aisle of any grocery store requires one clerk and is a great convenience to shoppers with just one or two items. Admittedly, there are busy moments in the self-check area as one customer fails to scan an item properly, another seeks a bag of ice, and theoretically a 19-year-old plots to party — that could be a lot to track simultaneously.

But most beer- and wine-buying folks are not playing the Pepsi game — there is no Oregon-based survey data to support the claim that soda and beer swapping is a pervasive problem. And the instant a self-checkout machine scans a bar code from an alcohol product, the register is locked up until a clerk physically shows up to validate the customer's age and manually override the system. (Warning to wily 19-year-olds: Once the transaction is locked, there's no backing out or canceling. That's called: Busted!)

Nothing's fail safe, of course. And we recognize that selling to underage customers or impaired adults, even by mistake, is a costly risk to grocery store personnel.

But it should not take four checkers on slow, long-line checkout stations to complete four alcohol purchases when one checker in a four-station self-checkout area can supervise brisk purchases just as well. Grocery store checkout practices, correctly adapted to new technologies, are best managed by the stores, not the Legislature.


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