Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Checkout bill would hit Fresh & Easy hard

On one side, we've got Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the California Nurses Association and a passel of law enforcement agencies, including the San Francisco Police Department.

On the other, the California Grocers Association, the California Retailers Association, various chambers of commerce and NCR Corp. (formerly National Cash Register).

Yes, another alcohol-related measure is working its way through the state Legislature, and this one's causing particular heartburn for the offshoot of a British supermarket chain that is about to open stores in San Francisco.

The measure, AB183, written by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, would ban purchasing alcohol at self-checkout stands, the kind you find at big-box retailers and grocery stores like Target and Safeway and, most notably, at the 126 Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market outlets in California.

Ma says her bill is aimed at combatting underage drinking, which she estimates costs California $1.8 billion annually in law enforcement and health costs. "AB183 seeks to prevent alcohol from getting in the wrong hands and protects the public and our youth," she has said.

In most retail stores where they are used, self-checkout stands constitute a small minority. Fresh & Easy, which has 11 stores in the Bay Area, with two opening in the coming months in San Francisco, relies solely on self-checkout, a significant cost-saving measure, as well as a customer convenience.

But Fresh & Easy, a subsidiary of Britain's Tesco PLC, one of the world's largest retailers, is not being singled out, Ma insists.

"We appreciate Fresh & Easy coming to San Francisco," she said. "But when it comes to buying alcohol, or beverages with alcohol in them, they'll have to have a retail clerk involved, just the same as at Lucky, Safeway, Target or Walgreens."