Do Self-Checkout Stands Make It Easier for Minors To Buy Alcohol?


Despite lockout mechanisms that require proof of ID for all alcohol purchases, self-service supermarket checkout stands make it easier for minors to buy booze.

Therefore, all sales of alcohol must occur only at traditionally staffed checkout stands.

That’s the logic and policy change in AB 183 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, a San Francisco Democrat.

Her bill is a carbon copy of AB 1060 of last year – vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – which, in turn, was a retread of AB 523 a late-in-the-session, 2008 gut-and-amend measure that originally dealt with University of California contracts.

Ma’s bill is scheduled for an August 15 hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Among the bill’s co-sponsors, are Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the California Police Chiefs’ Association – despite evidence offered by opponents showing self-checkout stands have little impact on the ability of minors to buy booze.

“The use of this technology in retail settings does not increase access to alcohol by minors nor does it increase incidents of theft,” said Ron Fong, president of the California Grocers Association.

Supporters of the bill say sometimes the ”lock-out” doesn’t work or the clerk fails to verify ID.

Another supporter of the bill, all three times it’s been introduced, is the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing grocery store employees.

The union has an ongoing beef with the Fresh & Easy grocery store chain, which isn’t unionized and uses exclusively self-checkout stands.

As other writers and publications, including the Los Angeles Times, have noted the real purpose of the bill is to punish Fresh & Easy, not shrink the chances someone underage can score a six-pack.

“This is the latest in a long series of attacks on our business by the UFCW,” said Brendan Wonnacott, Fresh & Easy’s communications director.

“They failed with two previous versions of this bill to convince the governor and Legislature that a problem actually exists. We hope that good judgment will again prevail.”

The June 14 analysis of Ma’s bill by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee says that all self-checkout sales of alcohol require approval by a clerk or supervisor through verification of age.

“You have to do this even if you’re 84 years old, because the computer automatically demands ID since of course it cannot (yet) distinguish between an inebriated 19-year-old with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a 60-year-old with a bottle of Pinot Noir,” the analysis says.

And, the analysis continues, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has “no evidence of any problems associated with minors purchasing alcoholic beverages through self-service checkouts.”

Both Ma’s bill and its immediate predecessor cite the same “recent” study by UCLA law students for the Community Economic Development Clinic.

Conducted over two weeks in April 2009 with participants ranging in age from 21 to 41, the study included 97 visits to 34 stores with self-checkout stands operated by various chains in Los Angeles and Orange countries.

The conclusion: “Self-checkout machines may increase the risk of illegal purchases of alcohol.”

A laissez faire clerk at a traditional checkout may also ”increase the risk of illegal purchases of alcohol.”

In its June 6 editorial opposing the bill, the Times notes that several other studies show clerks at regular stands are more likely to not check ID.

The Times quotes a different survey that the bill’s supporters, which the Times says, is the “most careful and comprehensive.”

It is certainly more “recent” than the UCLA study since it was conducted in 2010 by San Diego State University.

In this case, 216 stores were visited by persons aged 21 to 23 who looked younger than their actual age. No identification was checked 8.4 percent of the time at the self-serve stands.

And 27 percent of the time, the buyers could outfox the machine by quickly scanning another item. The Times did not mention this in its editorial.

The machines failed to “lock out” alcohol purchases “slightly more often,” the Times said, that the failure to ask for ID. But when there was a glitch with the scanners, clerks dealt with it “in almost all those cases,” the Times said.

In his 2010 veto message of the predecessor to Ma’s bill, Schwarzenegger said this:

“There is no legitimate evidence to suggest that self-service grocery checkout stands are contributing to the theft of alcoholic beverages and sale to minors or intoxicated persons.

“Retailers have several strong reasons to prevent the theft or sale of alcohol to minors, including the fact that alcohol is an expensive product to be stolen and a grocer’s alcohol sales license could be placed in jeopardy.

“Thus, it is unclear what problem this bill seeks to address.”

The Times notes that even if the Ma’s bill were to become law minors would still be free to try to sneak alcohol through on the machines

Higher fines on grocers who allow that to happen is the better solution, the Times concludes.

Other facts show that self-service machines aren’t the method of choice used by underage drinkers to supply themselves.

According to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 8.2 percent of underage drinkers bought the booze themselves. Almost 22 percent gave money to someone of legal age and asked them to make the purchase.

For minors who didn’t pay for alcohol, 37 percent said they got it from someone over 21 years of age and 19.5 percent received it from an adult family member.

As the Senate Governmental Organization Committee’s analysis points out, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control reports that self-checkout stands in large chain grocery stores represent a small percentage of sales to minors.

There were about 2,300 accusations of selling to minors filed by the department from January 1, 2008 to March 11, 2011.

Of those, 2,000 were against small stores, about 90 percent of the total. Under 7 percent of the accusations were filed against “big box”, retailers like Walmart and Costco or specialty grocery stores like Trader Joe’s.

Large supermarkets with self-checkout stands were less than 4 percent of the accusations.

As for Fresh & Easy, the real target of the bill?

It received two accusations over the three-year period.

That’s .00085 percent of the total.





  1. The reason Fresh & Easy has the highest number of accusations is simple. It’s the only grocery chain in California the has self-service checkout only. Nearly all chains in California have full-service only. Some have mostly full-service but also offer self-service as an option. This is an important distinction that explains why out of the 4% half the accusations would be Fresh & Easy.

    Comment by Mitch — 8.15.2011 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Great analysis; could use less opinion though.
    At its core, it lays down the facts and they show a minor (pun intended) number of transactions actually result in purchase of alcohol
    Only clarification I would like is to compare the average rate of minors buying alcohol from staffed checkout vs. unmanned checkout.
    Seems to me that unless there is a marked increase over manned checkouts this bill is a complete waste of time.

    Comment by Brian — 8.23.2011 @ 5:41 pm

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