New Law Bans Self-Service Checkout for Alcohol

Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 183, introduced by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, on Sunday. This bill bans the sale of alcohol at self-service checkouts and takes effect Jan. 1, 2012.

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Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on Sunday that bans the sale of alcohol at self-service checkouts — a move that directly impacts Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market as it continues its expansion in San Francisco, including one store planned for the Mission District.

The bill, AB 183, introduced by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, takes effect Jan. 1, 2012. It impacts Fresh & Easy in particular because the market relies solely on self-service checkout systems at its stores. The new law will require grocers to have at least one human-run checkout for all alcohol sales.

Similar bills were vetoed in 2008 and 2010 by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Despite the setback, Fresh & Easy is determined to continue its growth in California, said Brendan Wonnacott, a Fresh & Easy spokesman. Asked how this would affect the company’s new stores, Wonnacott said they are weighing the options.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions right now,” he said. “We’re going to have to examine all of our options going forward.”

Fresh & Easy, a subsidiary of England-based Tesco Corporation, the third largest retailer in the world, sees this measure and one introduced at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as blatant attempts to single out the company for its business practices.

Fresh & Easy uses self-service checkouts as a cost-saving move that allows it to compete with other grocers, Wonnacott said last week. It is the only grocer in California to rely entirely on self-service.

Fresh & Easy, which has already opened stores in the Outer Richmond and Bayview, plans to open one in Potrero Hill and one in the Mission, at 1245 South Van Ness Ave., formerly the site of DeLano’s IGA market.

Several weeks ago, District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar introduced his own legislation that would ban alcohol sales at new stores that use self-service checkouts; Mar’s proposed law is less stringent than Ma’s. The ordinance was co-sponsored by supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos.

It is meant to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors and those who are inebriated, as required by law, Linshao Chin, a legislative aide to Mar, wrote last week.

Minors and others who want to skip the safeguards in place at self-service checkouts can find information online on how to cheat the system, Chin wrote. “Stores should not be making it easier for either of these groups to get alcohol.”

Community and labor groups have expressed concerns about Fresh & Easy’s labor policies — mainly the use of automated machines rather than human beings to facilitate purchases.

The Mission-based People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, known as PODER, is concerned by the low wages paid by Fresh & Easy, whose workers are not unionized.

“We’re concerned…that will become the new norm” for grocers in the Mission, said Oscar Grande of PODER. “That’s not the road we want to go down.”

Two other major grocers in the Mission, Safeway and FoodCo, are unionized. Rainbow Market is a cooperative.

Fresh & Easy generally hires 25 to 30 workers who work a minimum of 20 hours a week, Wonnacott said, with the entry-level wage $10 an hour — 30 cents more than the city’s minimum wage. The company also offers health care, a 401k and quarterly bonuses.

Wonnacott said that the company has no position on unionization; it’s up to the workers to decide, through a vote authorized by the National Labor Relations Board.

Grande said his organization will be going door-to-door to educate Missionites about the market and gather a list of concerns to bring to the market.

“Be a good corporate citizen is what the community is saying,” he said, adding that if the market isn’t willing to listen, then “maybe you’re not a good fit for the neighborhood.”