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California legislation to limit self-checkout is pulled

The move by the author of the bill to curb illegal purchases of alcohol allows it to be taken up at the start of the 2010 session.

September 17, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

A vote on a California Senate bill that would force supermarkets to route all alcohol sales through live cashiers, who could ensure that buyers are sober and of legal drinking age, was delayed after the author pulled the proposed legislation.

Proponents of the bill say it is too easy for minors and the inebriated to buy alcohol illicitly by using the self-check machines rather than regular lines overseen by a grocery clerk.

The delay is a procedural move that will allow the bill, AB 1060, to be considered at the start of the new legislative session in January without having to make its way past all the legislative committees again.

Backers believe the bill by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) easily has enough votes to pass in the Senate. This delay gives them time to lobby for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support.

"The governor was intrigued by the legislation but wanted more information about how people can bypass the checkout systems," said De La Torre, who placed the bill on hold late last week. "I couldn't get it together before the recess."

The bill breezed through the Assembly this year over the objections of some large grocery chains. It has support from groups fighting alcoholism and teen drinking, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Marin Institute as well as labor-allied community groups such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

California already forbids cigarettes, spray paint and some over-the-counter medications to be sold in self-service lines to make it tougher for minors to obtain them. AB 1060 would add beer, wine and spirits to that list, De La Torre said.

When a shopper buys alcohol, the devices are designed to freeze the transaction until a clerk confirms the buyer's age. But these safeguards failed or were ignored by supermarket staff almost 20% of the time, according to an April test of Southern California food stores by UCLA's Community Economic Development Clinic and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

If approved, the legislation would also have an outsize effect on Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores. That chain, which uses self-service checkout exclusively, would have to adjust its model or give up lucrative alcohol sales.

Fresh & Easy is still working to defeat the bill.

"We are continuing to educate policymakers about the considerable efforts we have made, both in training and in our systems, to ensure alcohol is only sold to those who can legally purchase it," said Brendan Wonnacott, a spokesman for the grocery chain.

The major supermarket companies say that if the legislation passes, they will route customers buying alcoholic beverages through their regular checkout lines.

Self-service checkout systems are growing in popularity. Shoppers run the items across a scanner and place them in a bag on an electronic scale. The machine checks whether the weight of the product matches what was scanned to keep customers honest. Consumers like the convenience, and supermarkets save on labor.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesjerry

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