Checkouts are tougher than rocket science

Mar 24, 2015

Spending some excessive time on a checkout line recently got me thinking back to something my mother used to say. "They figured out how to put a man on the moon. Why can’t they make the checkout line move faster?"

Making checkouts faster has been the goal of retailing pretty much going back to the first time a line formed to buy goods. Retailers have tried all kinds of approaches, including opening registers based on the number of people in a line, adding self-checkouts, employing mobile checkouts, making use of express checkouts, queuing people in a single line and moving them to the next open register, improving scanning technology and accepting mobile payments to achieve the goal, yet the complaints persist.

Morrisons, one of the biggest supermarket chains in England, announced yesterday it was no longer going to use its Intelligent Queue Management (IQM) system in stores. The company made the decision after receiving complaints by customers and staff about the effectiveness of the system, which used infrared sensors to determine the number of customers shopping in a store.

The system was first rolled out in 2008, according to The Grocer, following a test that showed the time spent on line dropped five percent.

Morrisons plans to replace the technology with its own people after determining its "checkout teams would make better and more balanced decisions compared to the IQM computer system."

On a separate but related note, Morrisons also announced it would no longer evaluate checkout workers based on the number of items they scan per minute but on their level of personal service.

"We intend to be an organization that listens very hard to its customers and staff and, wherever possible, responds quickly," said David Potts, CEO of Morrisons, in a statement. "Our colleagues in our stores are best placed to use their experience and personal judgment in deciding how best to serve their customers, keeping queues low at the checkouts and improving the customer’s shopping trip."

Do you think retailers have largely failed to address complaints of long checkout waits? What do you see as the most promising use of people and technology to reduce wait times at the checkout?

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31 Comments on "Checkouts are tougher than rocket science"

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Richard Hernandez

While I applaud this move, I wonder how they are going to monitor level of personal service. I don’t know if there is a BI metric for this, but I am intrigued. Customer service is one of the things that is necessary for a good customer experience, but often it is sidelined when you cut hours in a store.

Cathy Hotka

Whole Foods (pictured above) is the gold standard—no customer is ever “in the wrong lane.” In my experience, though, most checkout problems are caused by failing to staff up adequately. The process of checking out isn’t inherently inefficient, but having three checkers for 25 customers is.

Max Goldberg

As George states so well in the article, retailers have tried and tried to alleviate checkout lines, all to little avail. Shoppers move through a grocery store at their own pace. Suddenly their pace is disrupted by the need to rely on someone else and check out. It feels disruptive, and it is. Every new technology promises to reduce the lines, but doesn’t. Showing sympathy and demonstrating action make checkout less of a chore. And that may be the best a concerned retailer can do.

Dick Seesel

To Cathy’s point, the issue with long checkout lines is almost always inadequate staffing. (In my local Roundy’s store the problem is usually lack of baggers, not lack of open lanes.) No queuing system is a substitute for management’s eyes on the front of the store, and having enough people scheduled during peak hours to flex to the checkout lanes when needed. Sometimes “all hands on deck” is called for, but rarely seen.

Ken Lonyai

From my experience, stores utilizing an automated queuing system do better at moving people than those that don’t. However that’s just one aspect to a slow checkout experience. It seems that the number one drag on speedy checkouts is pricing issues, followed by register gaffes and product/return questions that require a manager’s intervention.

So stores that truly want to speed checkouts need to address the problem holistically and not just focus on the queue. Part of that is better trained and more empowered cashiers that do more than just scan/bag items and pass cash back and forth.

Paula Rosenblum

As Cathy Hotka points out, Whole Foods does a great job at checkout. So does Publix. In fact I think it’s one of the main reasons people like shopping there so much. The chain drugstores seem pretty egregious in this regard.

The problem is simple enough, really. Tweak payroll down a little bit here and a little bit there, and eventually lo-and-behold, there’s not enough staff to do a good job at the register. Then install a couple of self-checkout lanes and pretend the problem is solved.

The most promising way of using people to reduce wait times is to actually use them. It’s not easy. Publix is privately held. The company can do what it wants. Whole Foods is in a “premium” market. Trust is its differentiator and trust starts with the products the store sells, moves through service in the aisles and ultimately to the check-out experience.

There’s no magic technology bullet for this. Design the checkout stands correctly. If you’re a grocer or big box retailer, make sure you’ve bought the fastest scanners and then staff them.

Adrian Weidmann

This is a process where retailers have failed miserably. My local Target has 28 cash wraps and I’ve never seen more than eight open at any given time. Twenty-eight cash wraps in a single store, really! Did someone at Target actually think that they would ever have that many people on the payroll on any given day to open that many lanes?

Just yesterday there were eight people waiting in line at my local grocery store just to use self-checkout. Instead of waxing about how customer-centric they are, retailers should focus on those things that they can fix today! Not every problem is a nail that needs to get pummeled by the technology hammer. Use some common sense. Every member of a retailer’s executive team should actually shop their stores anonymously once every other week to get the real perspective.

Ron Margulis

It really is the shopper’s fault. If they’d only come to the store when the lines are short, there wouldn’t be any problems.

Mobile technology is already helping to address the issue of long checkout lines. As Morrisons and others have found out, the key is to balance the use of technology to shorten wait times with the need to meet the consumers’ other requirements of an engaging shopping experience. Recognition programs will address this both through technology and the training of store staff.

Gene Detroyer

As Cathy states above, Whole Foods is the gold standard. Other retailers have also developed one line systems where the variable is the number of cashiers. This also seems to work well.

The problem is that most retailers see improvements in checkout as costs rather than improvements in customer service. If the attitude is “What is the smallest number of cashiers we can use to keep the lines short?” the goal of happy customers will never be reached.

Mohamed Amer
I am reminded of the video “This is Water” inspired by David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. While the video speaks to the choices we make in life, it uses a supermarket checkout as brilliant context on how we view life. Checkout lines can be long and onerous, so people amuse themselves in different ways: Texting, gaming, daydreaming, complaining, counting, skimming outrageous magazine stories and so on. Yet the remedy is in part better scheduling and flexing by the supermarket and being sensitive to the needs of their customers who have just navigated the aisles, done the work and are now ready to give up their hard-earned money. I look at a low-tech store such as Trader Joe’s and wonder if it can be replicated in a larger footprint. There are always an abundant number of cashiers (six to 10), each can ring the bell if they need more help, the store manager is located on a platform near the checkout lines to ensure ease of flow, the conversation during checkout is friendly and engaging (with some cashiers offering cooking ideas based on the items in your shopping basket). It’s fast, courteous and they enjoy great inventory… Read more »
Bill Davis

For the most part. I think retailers have tried to address checkout line delays in multiple ways, but the majority of those efforts haven’t moved the needle in a meaningful way. Reducing checkout delays is an optimization problem, balancing checkout wait time with costs of having more registers open, and I am sure this has been solved theoretically on multiple occasions. The challenge is in taking this out of theory and making it work in the real world.

It’s a sophisticated problem and one in which there is no easy solution. I think fault lies with both the technology vendors for not understanding the reality of the challenge well enough, and with retailers for trying to simplify something that is more complex than it gets credit for. I don’t know the solution, but I am sure if there were a silver bullet addressing this well it would be capturing a majority of peoples’ attention.

Personally, I would be interested in learning more about how Kroger’s QueVision has been working.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Absolutely. There are a couple of retailing universals: 1. The longer you are in-store the more you buy. 2. The quicker you get out the quicker you come back. Many retailers have tried and abandon the noted speed-up processes in the article. RFID was expected to remove the checkout queue. However, the jury is still out on its successful implementation. One that hasn’t been given full attention is separate checkout lines for high-volume customers. Here’s how it might work. When you enter the store, you swipe your customer card. The retailer has data on the average length of time of your shopping experience. Based on this data, you are assigned a preferred checkout line within a set range of time. Within the assigned time range you proceed to checkout lines designated for high-volume customers. Even the airlines with the worst customer service have figured out how to accommodate frequent flyers. Obviously, such a system requires some kind of frequent shopper card or its equivalent. In supermarkets we tend to reward the shoppers with the fewest purchases, namely, in the form of express checkouts for a limited number (10 to 20) of items. I am not suggesting that such lines be… Read more »
Tony Orlando

Getting the customers out of the store can be tough at times, and it is a staffing issue. The lines at Costco can take up to 30 to 45 minutes to get through, and for some strange reason it doesn’t stop customers from coming back.

Get into a conventional supermarket and all of the sudden the customer has no patience for waiting even five minutes, so go figure.

We have three checkouts and for the better part of the day all three can be staffed at a moments notice, and it helps to cross train everyone in my store to run the registers. No easy answer here since labor is expensive and profits are slim, but cross training definitely helps smooth out the boom and bust cycle a supermarket has during rush hour.

Ed Rosenbaum

Publix in this area has/is doing a good job of getting people through the lines and out to their cars. In my opinion two of the most egregious at check out management are Target and Walmart. Employees can be standing around talking while the lines grow with little concern about anything but the conversation. Management and training can do much to correct this if either is in place and effective.

Mark Burr
2 years 7 months ago

Retailers forgot long ago that the purpose of the checkout is to take the customer’s money! At this point in the customer’s experience, they’ve made the decision to purchase. That decision has been made—honor it!

Retailers have all the data they need to schedule to the business needs. In many supermarkets they have self-checkouts that are, when best used, a customer service enhancement. Support the customer using them!

Every decision a retailer makes should start at this experience and work backwards from there. Too many retailers have forced their programs to the point-of-sale system, to the point that it is overwhelmed by activities other than taking the customer’s money.

Pssssttt … Retailers, make your checkout about taking the customer’s money that they have already decided to give to you. And by they way, do it with a smile followed by a cheerful thank you!

Mark Price

The high variability in the number of shoppers in the checkout lane from minute to minute makes the management of checkout very tricky. You need systems and processes that adjust in real-time. The best example is the “mobile” checkout that Apple does. Associates can walk around the store assisting customers with their questions and then be instantly reallocated to checkout wherever they are standing.

Raymond D. Jones
Raymond D. Jones
2 years 7 months ago

The process of reducing checkout wait times is largely understood and the technology is available. One could use basic queuing theory to improve service times and reduce wait times. For example, the use of a single serpentine line instead of multiple lanes.

However, this is not the only factor retailers need to address. They need to consider the cost of service, the opportunity for incremental impulse sales and the overall customer experience at the checkout.

Dechert-Hampe Co. has conducted extensive research into the value of the checkout for impulse sales and the improvement of the customer experience. The Front-End Focus research was sponsored by Mars, Coca-Cola and Time Warner and was made available to the industry.

The studies showed that the key issue was not real time, but perceived time at the checkout. For example, shoppers perceived that the self-checkout was faster when it actually took more time. Also, time seemed to be less when there were magazines and other items available to peruse.

Importantly, retailers sell over 1 percent of their total sales with items displayed at the checkout. For an industry that operates on razor slim margins, this is a critical source of revenue.

Ed Dunn
2 years 7 months ago

The retailer can optimize checkout all they want—the real bottleneck is when someone sees the final price and then decides to reach for their checkbook and pen and put on their reading glasses and start writing out a check, very slowly.

Now we are looking at mobile payments where someone will wait until the last minute to turn on their phone and get a cell signal after the final price is displayed on the cash register.

Peter Charness

It really is a question of how the retailer invests in staffing, and probably a little less to do with tech at checkout. It’s a balancing act of cost vs service, but also how to deal with short shifts to deal with peak hours vs giving associates decent schedules. Amazingly enough, with all the tech available, this is still an issue. Maybe it’s just a question of more investment of in-store staff, and the possibility of having in-store associates able to do multiple jobs in the store during their shift.

As to queuing theory…how is it that whatever line I pick (based on my review of number of shoppers ahead of me and items in baskets), it’s always the slowest one? Perhaps there’s a way of having a single queue that feeds all the lines so I stand a chance of getting through in fair time.

John Karolefski

I agree with Richard George of St. Joseph’s. We reward shoppers with an express lane for small baskets, but do not reward shoppers with a special lane for big baskets. Actually, that notion has been suggested by many experts for several years. So why haven’t grocers implemented such a plan?

Robert DiPietro

The checkout issue is about the balance of store labor and customer flow. The difficulty in scheduling associates to handle the traffic is that it is not a normal distribution; it can come in spurts. This creates bottlenecks to which the retailer has to react in real time. It’s been a while since I’ve done any queuing analysis, but it’s a Poisson distribution I believe. You see it in grocery all the time when you hear the page “all grocery associates to the front end”—that is the sign that they are calling in the reinforcements to handle the spike.

The most promising is either the mobile check where associates can check you out on the sales floor—think Apple stores. The other one is self check where the customer scans and bags as they shop—think Stop & Shop in the northeast. The bottleneck with this in my experience is the the upload speed when you check out—it is redonkulously long.

Kenneth Leung

At the end of the day, it is staffing. Most customers will be forgiving if the lines are long and every checkout lane is open, they will blame the customer in front of them for being “slow” such as searching for their money after the items are scanned. I agree with Cathy that the whole food checkout design is probably the best in terms of normalizing the queuing, but it does require major redesign of many store layouts.

gordon arnold

Nothing irritates consumers more than technical abandonment. Not just at the checkout counter, but in the aisles as well. This same problem is spilling into the e-commerce designs we see today. Consumers are leaving carts in both brick & mortar stores and e-stores in increasing numbers. This is surprising, especially when all of retail is in search for increased market share. Poor wages and lowering the staffing levels is taking its toll on consumer satisfaction. The large majority of consumers do not discuss these issues with management freely; they prefer to shop for the same or better deals where the service is better too.

James Tenser

My number one rule in retail—don’t make ’em wait to pay!

The checkout is the final chapter in each shopping experience. If it feels miserable, then that’s the impression the shopper takes home. Raymond is so right—perception is everything in this regard.

Retail banks typically use the single serpentine queue to move people quickly to the next open teller and communicate fairness. But where shoppers are navigating carts, that single queue might look intimidatingly long. Most supermarkets seem to have concluded that multiple short parallel queues feel shorter, even if they move along at inconsistent rates.

A pretty good formula for supermarket queue management, I think, begins with some cross-training, so store associates can flex as needed between tasks at the front end and on the selling floor. Staffing management systems can be helpful in ensuring that there are enough hands to cover predictable surges, like the 6:00 PM after-work rush or holidays. Then proactively open more checkstands based on store traffic. If you need a people-counter system to generate alerts, so be it. Otherwise, rely on your front-end managers to react when any line gets longer than three customers.

Tom Redd

Many retailers have failed at getting the checkout challenge solved. Whole Foods fans always will say that they have it figured out. Why? They are snowed by the WF concept and love to pay super high prices for food. They LOVE being seen there!

DSW shoes is doing great with this challenge as are the Kroger divisions.

It will always be a challenge and the key is that retailers make sure that their people are really well-trained for POS usage and that managers are highly mobile and ready to assist the POS teams.

I am a Kroger, Meijers, and Walmart shopper. They are doing well, but need to get more POS approval/assist managers in place during peak hours.

PS: I like WF as a company—just tire of their fans and the rah rah natural food stuff.

Connie Kski
Connie Kski
2 years 7 months ago

I am refusing to shop at Kohl’s after being refused service by a cashier who indicated that they were now using a single queue without signage or a traffic director. Or indeed anyone waiting in line within 50 feet. Done. So done with these people.

There’s got to be a better way.

J. Kent Smith

I think the processing technology has progressed well; as you point out in the article, it’s about scheduling. To some extent, self checkout was to relieve this. But some are still held in the paradigm that a wait exposes customers to impulse items in the checkout lanes—and, the research I’ve seen, says it works. So like so much of retail its a balance between speed and exposure. Each retailer will make their own choices—and so will its customers.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Laura Davis-Taylor
2 years 7 months ago

For certain, one of the biggest pains in retail. I would personally love to see time, focus and investment put towards alleviating the root cause of the pain in unique ways such as the ever-popular Tesco Click n’ Collect service. I’d give my left arm to order my goods online and just drive through to get them loaded up in my trunk.

Gajendra Ratnavel

A system that has a bottleneck in the flow will always have a delay. A combination of mobile checkout and intelligent/self aware products will solve this issue. Technology is available but just costs way too much to use only on onions and ginger.

I heard about the Walmart lockers and recently saw it on my way out of my local Walmart. This is a cool concept, but I don’t see a lot of people using it. Basically, I believe, the idea is you order online, someone at Walmart will get all the products and put it into a locker for you and you just walk in and take it from the locker and walk out. How easy is that! No line ups!

Arie Shpanya

The long lines at stores have been a reason why Instacart and other grocery delivery services have been so well received. Especially in urban centers where many residents don’t have cars.

eCommerce in general has greatly benefited from the inefficiencies so commonly associated with brick and mortar retail. I recently was in a store and spent more time in line waiting to pay for the item than it took me to pick out what I wanted to buy.

I’ve had great experiences at stores that arm associates with checkout devices on smartphones. Sure, this can get trickier when you have produce to weigh and many more items to scan. But overall, I think that technology can help make the checkout experience smoother for everyone.

Mary Green
Mary Green
2 years 7 months ago

I think the queuing system works best. However, it is also necessary for the retailer to be observant to also open more registers as necessary.


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