Legislative battle over self-checkout alcohol sales

Your quick trip to the supermarket for a six-pack of brews or a bottle of vino might take a bit longer if the state Senate approves a bill that would bar retailers from letting customers buy alcohol through self-service checkouts.

self-checkoutAB 183 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, is based on the argument that self-checkout alcohol sales make it easier for minors or already-intoxicated customers to buy, and increase chances of theft. The Assembly approved AB 183 on a 48-26 vote May 26, sending it to the state Senate.

Similar bills have been offered twice before, both by former Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate. His 2007 bill didn’t make it past the Senate Governmental Organization Committee; his 2009 bill was approved by the Legislature but was vetoed last September by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said there’s “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. … Thus, it is unclear what problem this bill seeks to address.”

Among AB 183’s supporters are the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Mothers Against Drunk Driving – somewhat strange bedfellows, given they took ardently opposite sides on last year’s marijuana legalization just a few months ago. Other supporters include several police organizations as well as anti-drug and anti-alcohol groups.

“We believe it is imperative that our youth be taken out of harm’s way in regards to underage drinking,” Michael Henneberry, communications director for San Jose-based UFCW Local 5, said Thursday. “AB 183 is a common-sense fix to the issue and will swiftly mitigate against the major problem of youth using self check to procure liquor. The law applies to union and non-union stores alike and is equitable despite the claims of some retailers.”

Nonetheless, the move toward more self-checkouts means a shrinking need for supermarket labor, the UFCW’s potential members. The union for years has been trying to organize clerks at Fresh & Easy supermarkets, which happen to use an all-self-checkout model; most recently, the UFCW has staged an informational picket line outside that company’s new store in Modesto.

The UFCW, always a prolific contributor to Democratic campaigns and causes, spent $15,000 last year just to lobby for De La Torre’s bill. The union’s Western States Council spent $15,348 on lobbying in this year’s first quarter, but Ma’s bill isn’t listed among those the union has tried to influence.

Opponents of AB 183 such as the California Grocers Association say self-service checkout stations already have a lock-out or “freeze” mechanism that requires a clerk’s intervention to verify age before finalizing all alcohol purchases. They also say studies consistently show that most of the time, minors get alcohol by getting adults to buy it for them.

“When this same legislation was vetoed last year the reason was clear – there is no legitimate evidence to suggest that assisted self-service grocery checkout stands are contributing to the theft of alcoholic beverages and sale to minors or intoxicated persons. The same holds true today,” CGA President Ron Fong said Thursday. “Our stores have solid protections in place against minors purchasing alcohol and we see this bill as a solution in search of a problem.”

The California Grocers Association – also a prolific campaign contributor that leans Republican, and gave significant amounts to Schwarzenegger’s committees – spent $60,251 on lobbying in this year’s first quarter on dozens of bills including AB 183.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Anthony W.

    This bill is pointless and there is a reason it failed before. Self service checkouts lock up and require a store associate to check an ID in order to advance further in the sale. If a minor is going to steal alcohol they will steal it, they do not need the aid of a personal checkout station.

  • Truthclubber

    I could not agree more with poster #1 — I love self-checkout and wish more stores went the way of Fresh & Easy.

    If the only job you can get is one lifting items off a moving conveyor to hold them over a laser scanner, it’s time to go back to school and get the diploma you could have cared less about earlier in your life.

  • Elwood

    Ah, toothsucker, it’s so good to have you back again, with your helpful advice for other people.

    Even if you are a liar.

  • Lisa Vorderbrueggen

    Man, I hate self-check out stations. Something always goes wrong and the machine yells at me. “Please place item in bag!” I did place in the bag! Another item won’t scan. And then there is the search for the right code for the onions and the cucumbers. I have to put on my reading glasses so I can decipher the various screens and touch pad orders. It’s nuts. I want real, live human being checkers.

  • steve weir

    Yell back. Veggies have four digit numbers (or pictures for those who need ’em).

  • John W

    Now, if we can just get rid of some pesky regulations that prevent one combined retail outlet from selling liquor, firearms & ammo, and “medical” marijuana. That self-checkout thing would really come in handy.

  • I also hate self check out because it seems so much slower than the peopled check outs/ I am with Lisa V. on this one, the machines that I have tried drive me nuts and I am always confused by their instructions and feedback. I also like to exchange a few words with the cashier about what is going on and I like being pampered by having someone else put my things in a bag. Just old fashioned customer service.

  • Truthclubber

    For those of you who “hate self-checkout”, please do those of us who had enough brain power to adapt to ATMs and self-pumped gasoline, and STAY THE **** OUT OF THAT AREA — you just slow things down for those of us who don’t want to wait in line for a bank teller or pay extra to have some grease monkey fill our tank…

    Evolve or die — wasn’t that what Darwin stated?

  • John W

    Re: #8

    I’m still ticked that they took away the elevator operators and the switchboard operators to place your long distance phone calls. Three cheers for Oregon and New Jersey — where pumping your own gas is agin the law. Self-checkout at Home Depot works fine, unless you happen to grab one the many items lacking a functioning bar code — in which case you spend the next ten minutes trying to find someone to fix the mess. So much for the “need for speed.” But I’m all for ATM’s. I just pretend it’s a Vegas slot machine — except that I always break even.

  • Elwood

    @ toothsucker

    Won’t you share with us toothsucker just what is it that makes you so superior (in your opinion only) to all the rest of mankind?

    The only part of you which might possibly be considered as evolved is your massive inexplicable ego.

    And you’re still a liar.