To cut line waits, some markets cut check use

Long before banks started locating branches inside supermarkets, grocery stores acted as informal financial establishments, cashing payroll checks and personal checks to provide ready cash for customers. That's starting to change.

Whole Foods Market Inc. is considering banning the use of personal checks at its stores and earlier this month stopped accepting checks at two stores in the Los Angeles area and one in Arizona as a test. "Supermarkets used to be a repository of checking, cashing payroll and personal checks, but in an age of direct deposit and debit cards that's not something that is relevant to their customers anymore," said Mac Brand, a Chicago food-industry consultant.

The heads of these chains see check processing as a time-consuming and expensive service at a time when the industry is looking to lower costs, he said. But such a move carries risk.

"Every time you take something away, you run the risk of severing your relationship with a customer," Brand said.

Such policies would irritate shopper Kerry Showalter of Newbury Park, Calif., he said.

"Grocery stores are a dime a dozen. If the Albertsons where I shop stopped accepting checks, I would just go to Vons," he said.

The computer-industry sales executive said he uses personal checks to purchase groceries as method of keeping "a budget under control."

He said he's bothered by using debit and credit cards — which he feels are not actual representations of money — on transient purchases such as groceries. The physical act of writing a check makes shoppers think more carefully about their purchases, he said.

It also would be hard on many seniors, who have been slow to adopt the use of debit cards, said Gail Hillebrand, a lawyer and financial-services expert for the nonprofit Consumers Union.

But a widespread move by the grocery industry to ban personal checks would not upset other shoppers such as Sharon Fern of Placentia, Calif.

"I haven't written (a check) or carried a checkbook in many years," she said. "Wouldn't bother me a bit." Debit cards are far more convenient, she said.

"The money comes right out of my account and saves a lot of time over writing a check," Fern said.

Bill Jordan, Whole Foods regional vice president said prohibiting personal checks should improve service.

"Since most of our customers pay with cash, debit cards or credit cards, we want them to be able to check out as quickly as possible. This pilot program was put in place to see if personal check users would make the switch to debit cards or another form of payment.

"The program is off to a great start," he said.

A recent rise in bad checks also factors into the new policy, he said.

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