Features

Ringing up a revolution?

National | Chains install self-service checkouts, car phone ban ignites hands-free sales, and the IBM PC turns 20

Issue: "Heresy trials," Aug. 18, 2001

Do-it-yourself checkouts
On your next trip to the supermarket, you may be ringing up your own groceries. Chains around the country are installing self-service checkouts that let customers scan bar codes themselves. Kmart plans to add self-checkouts in 1,300 of its 2,113 stores by fall. Kroger Co., the nation's biggest supermarket owner, has them in about 725 of its 2,380 stores. Wal-Mart is testing self-checkout scanners in a few stores. Use is growing steadily and stores say they help ease the stress of finding good workers. "One of the biggest challenges for our stores is finding enough employees to staff a store on a regular basis," said Kroger spokesman Gary Rhodes. He said the self-scan systems cost between $20,000 and $30,000 each but usually pay for themselves within a year. Meanwhile, customers save time waiting in line (once they figure out how the scanner works). Self-checkout registers are usually placed in groups of four, two each facing each other in separate lanes. Only one employee is needed for the entire group for questions, problems, coupons, checks, ID checks, and the like. Since machines replace human labor, unionists are upset about self-checkout. The United Food & Commercial Workers opposes them, according to union spokeswoman Jill Cashen. She argues that giving up cashiers means losing customer service. "We think in the long run that will prove to be a bad choice," she said. Some stores, however, say that since the technology saves employee costs, it also keeps food prices down. Look officer, no hands
New York's cell phone ban goes into effect on Nov. 1. Police will consider drivers who hold a cell phone behind the wheel lawbreakers. It's no wonder that headsets are popping up to aid hands-free calling. Dozens of states are considering similar measures. New York's penalties aren't pretty: $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and $500 for each after that. On the other hand, headsets cost from $15 for simple earpieces to $200 for pricey wireless models. Stores like Radio Shack and Staples are giving more and more shelf space to such devices. Most new phones include a jack, so plugging one in is as simple as connecting headphones to a portable stereo. They cover one ear, which allows one to hear traffic around the driver. In a car, the distraction should be no worse than a car radio. The downside is that they are often awkward, bulky, and hard to hear; those who need a phone may consider all that a necessary pain. A J.D. Power and Associates survey found that drivers find dialing a number more distracting than talking, eating, or tuning the radio. To solve car phone problems, the auto industry is pouring millions into telematics, which studies how to deploy high technology in vehicles. GM, for example, offers the OnStar system that lets people access information by touching a single button. Smarter homes?
What will your home computer look like in 2021? As the high-tech industry marks the 20th anniversary of the original IBM PC, many think more revolutionary advances are on the way. The original PC was a lot slower and less functional than today's Dell Dimensions, Compaq Presarios, and HP Pavillions, but it looked much the same: a big, bulky box with a monitor attached. Today's futurists predict that wireless and network technology will take computing power and Internet access off the desktop and spread it through the house. "The PC as we currently view it is toast" said Rob Enderle, a tech analyst with Giga Information Group. "The thing you call your computer will be separated into many components." The next wave may be as unexpected as the IBM PC's explosion. What made this computer so revolutionary was that it standardized the microcomputer as a substitute for giant, expensive supercomputers used by corporations and institutions. The opportunity to license an operating system from Microsoft and buy a chip from Intel generated many clone companies. Eventually, IBM itself faded into one player among many in the PC industry. Today, the company known as Big Blue runs an experimental "smart house" in Austin where technology is tested in a fully furnished living room, kitchen, and garage. The house networks wireless devices, appliances, thermostats, security systems, and computers so they can "talk" to one another and exchange information. With PC sales in a slump, these innovations are IBM's Great Blue Hope.

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