Scan As You Go, A Supermarket Tale : All Tech Considered Is scan-as-you-go shopping becoming mainstream? Here are the pros and cons of handheld scanners in supermarkets.
NPR logo Scan As You Go, A Supermarket Tale

Scan As You Go, A Supermarket Tale

"Scan It!" display at a Giant store in Arlington, VA. Ryan Kellett/NPR hide caption

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Ryan Kellett/NPR

It's inevitable that you choose the slowest line at the supermarket. But what if you didn't have to stand in line at all? Using a handheld scanner, I've been scanning and bagging as I shop at the supermarket for a few weeks now out at the Giant Foods out in Arlington, VA.

The way it works is you enter the store and pick up a handheld scanning device, a bar code reader with a screen. To be clear, this isn't self-checkout, that comes later. As you make your way around the aisles of the store, you scan items as you place them in your bags (hint: bring your own cloth bags).

The small screen on the scanner shows you how much is in your cart and displays location-aware coupons. For instance, if you've just bought cream cheese, the system knows you're in the dairy section and might offer you an electronic coupon for yogurt.

When you're done, you go to the self-checkout registers, scan a final barcode to complete your transaction, pay, and be on your merry way.

Here's my list of pros and cons of the scan-as-you-go-style shopping:


  • Regain control of the shopping cart: No longer do I mindlessly add items to your cart only to be faced with a three-figure bill at the register. Check your cart total as you go, keeping you on budget. Better yet, avoid the confusion of "2 for $5" or "Save $0.67" by making sure you know the exact price of each item you buy.
  • Sidestep the check-out-aisle marketing blitz: When you stop waiting in line to checkout, there are no packs of gum and trashy magazines waiting for you at the registers.
  • Save time: Bagging your groceries once from shelf to bag makes sense. It's ridiculous to put everything in your cart, then on a belt, then in a bag, and then back in your cart.


  • Am I a stockboy?: I agree with the GadgeTell article that there is a "nagging feeling that the store is just off-loading labor costs and expecting me to do the work"
  • Hit the scales: Weighing your own cherries is still not appealing no matter how many times people tell me that's how it's done in European supermarkets.
  • Sounding off: Now you get to hear the annoying beeps and ka-chings throughout the store, reducing the enjoyment of the store's elevator music.
  • Exceptions: If you somehow want to do anything out of the ordinary (remove an item, ask for a cloth-bag discount, or use a paper coupon), you're going to have to see a real human being which in turn means waiting in line.

While handheld scanner technology may be turning mainstream in time for the birthday of the barcode, it isn't for everyone nor is the service everywhere. But the experience is just smooth enough for the average shopper to at least give it a try (at some Giant Food stores and a few other chains).