BrainTrust Query: How can we improve the dreaded checkout experience?

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Jul 11, 2006
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By Dan Nelson, Sr VP / Chief Operating Officer, GMDC


(www.gmdc.org)


Here’s something to consider… It’s very likely that the last two experiences a customer remembers after leaving a supermarket are among the least pleasant.


Ever choose a checkout line only to find you picked the slow lane? (Who hasn’t, right?)


Then, to reward your patience, you get to roll an unbalanced cart the length of a busy parking lot, exposed to the elements. (Nothing like loading groceries in the wind, rain and snow to give you that warm feeling inside about your favorite store.)


Grocers and other retailers are dedicating tremendous resources and brainpower to enhancing the overall shopping experience, but what happens at the checkout and beyond seems to be taken for granted in many operations. It just doesn’t make sense. Operators need to do some creative problem solving.


What if a supermarket replaced the standard multi-lane checkout configuration with a single “Checkout Aisle” that fed shoppers to the next available checker? Airports and banks determined years ago that a similar approach would minimize frustrations and give customers the feeling that, even if the operation was crowded, at least everyone was being attended to fairly.


Busy times can even present an opportunity to get CLOSER to customers. Maybe the store manager could direct the front of the line to the next open checkout while thanking the shopper for their business. How about a nice sample from the bakery and a small cup of hot cocoa while you wait?


And then there’s that lo—–ng walk across the parking lot. Maybe bringing the shopper’s car to the front of the store (aka Concierge Parking) would make enough difference in the experience to warrant the costs, especially if you factor in a reduction in shopping carts strewn across the lot and traffic tie ups.


Moderator’s Comment: What do you think of these suggestions for improving the checkout and get-away experience? What other ideas have you seen work?


Hollywood producers know that the final scenes of a picture can make or break the entire theatergoer’s impression, and greatly affect the movie’s “word
of mouth.” Retailers should adopt the same mindset.


These ideas may require a shift of priorities, especially labor allocations, but what would the ROI be on a differentiated approach that builds loyalty
with shoppers and changes their last memories of the store from unpleasant to very personal?

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28 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: How can we improve the dreaded checkout experience?"


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Leon Nicholas
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Leon Nicholas
14 years 7 months ago

Short of hiring real customer service professionals, I see the answer in technology. Self-scanning, so that the shopper is at least in control, is a good start. RFID-enabled basket check outs to make the check-out as easy as passing under the “EZ-Pass” lane in the toll booth would be ideal. I’ve also been impressed with some of the technology that is being used to entertain the shopper while she waits at the checkout. TVs running ads or giving news briefs make the time fly by faster and might even spark a last-minute purchase.

John Rand
Guest
John Rand
14 years 7 months ago
This is really sad as well as humorous. All the comments above relating to technology are fine and dandy, but the best experience is a low-tech high-touch one that has been perfected many times, forgotten, and re-invented for decades. Friendly competent front end PEOPLE (not machinery) and baggers who accompany shoppers to the car. Every time. Period. Locally here in Massachusetts, Roche Brothers still does this as well as anyone. The people at the registers are full-time adults by and large, with a flair for customer service and a knowledge of their customers and the store. The baggers are trained (trained!!) to insist on helping each and every shopper to their car. you have one bag? They will carry it. They insist on it, and they refuse all offers of a tip. It’s part of the service experience, embedded in the store. No rocket science. No technology required. Does it cost something? You bet it does. Roche is perfectly comfortable with charging a little more and delivering the service that justifies it. Hannaford used to… Read more »
Race Cowgill
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Race Cowgill
14 years 7 months ago

With so many wonderful answers for making the front-end better, the question that stands out is: why is it so awful? Here is what grocery executives have told us in our studies:

– No one is doing it any differently than we are, so there isn’t really any competitive pressure for doing this.

– It seems unlikely to produce measurable financial benefit beyond the costs.

– It works well enough as it is. It may not be perfect, but it seems to be good enough.

MARK DECKARD
Guest
MARK DECKARD
14 years 7 months ago

A recent Costco experience included a roving checker armed with a wireless scanner. She worked her way through the line scanning the products in shopper’s baskets and printed out a ticket at the end.

By the time she was done, all I had to do was hand the ticket to the person at checkout, process payment and walk away with the receipt. It was a marvel of efficiency and could be easily replicated as long as weights were not involved.

Karin Miller
Guest
Karin Miller
14 years 7 months ago

Retailers with systems to make the checkout experience fast, smart and “fair” will sway customers in their direction. Some examples:

–The single queue at Fry’s Electronics

–The self-checkout option at Home Depot and Ralphs Supermarket

–The person that pre-scans the contents of carts at Sam’s Club so that when the customer arrives at the register the only thing left is to process membership and credit cards

Yes, ultimately RFID “Fast-track” – style checkout will be preferred.

Christiane Rodgers
Guest
Christiane Rodgers
14 years 7 months ago

Some viable suggestions have been made here, but I agree with the comment that a single line would give the illusion of a longer wait and thus frustrate the consumer more. My comment or suggestion comes from my experience with a grocery retailer in Alexandria Kentucky several years ago. They had designed their checkout lanes and carts to eliminate the need for the consumer to have to physically unload his/her cart onto the belt. The basket of the cart sat a little higher and the front of it was hinged so that it folded down and the cashier was able to scan the items directly out of the cart. It was such a simple design and it worked beautifully and it reduced frustration in having to handle the groceries yet another time since we handle them enough between placing them in the cart then on the belt then back into the cart, then into the vehicle, then out of the vehicle and into the house, then out of the bag and into our pantry!

Chris Sorenson
Guest
Chris Sorenson
14 years 7 months ago
Agreed, that the last thing a person encounters (the checkout) is quite often the least pleasant of the entire trip. It often sends the message that the retailer is done servicing the customer, shy of taking their money, so efforts should be placed to make sure you finish the job of servicing the customer from the moment they enter the store until they get into their car. No different than a 100 yard dash…you don’t run your best race for the first 90 yards and then slow down thinking you’ve won the race, only to be passed up by those who know how to finish strong. I’m not a fan of the video screens at the checkouts as they run commercials for products that the customer no longer has an option to purchase, as they are stuck in line, and often leaves them feeling incomplete if they see something that they should have picked up. If anything, the video screens should display things that entertain…comedy shows, etc. …even a trivia game to engage the customer… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

If customers could use technology to record the cost of items purchased and their credit card so that by the time they are ready to leave they don’t have to stop and wait at the checkout line, all the checkout lines could be removed and the staff could be used to identify the “big shoppers,” “cherry pickers,” or otherwise “valuable shoppers” as they are about to leave and offer them a chance to purchase something else, give them something of value to them, bring their car around, take the cart out for them, or load the car when it was brought to the front; the retailer wouldn’t necessarily need more employees. The switch would require an investment in technology and training but would certainly make someone’s store distinctive, provide terrific service to customers, and allow for individualized customer response.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
14 years 7 months ago
I agree with RetailSEER. Yes, RFID technology may usher in a utopian future where you wheel your cart into a checkout zone, barely slowing down long enough to swipe your credit card before heading out to your car. Until then, there are some lower-tech ways to help. A single line, I agree, is not ideal when you’re wheeling a cart around in a small area. But a gap between the person checking out and the next person in line allows the store to open another register and take the next person in line. Nothing worse than waiting in a long line, then another lane opens and the people behind you fill it up! Along with that, a cart redesign as suggested above to eliminate the unloading saves the consumer time, allows the pros to do it more efficiently, and enables the above “gap” without slowing things down as you approach the checkout. Pre-checkout procedures are a great idea, but in most stores using that extra person to just open another lane is lower tech and… Read more »
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 7 months ago

It’s all about options. Create different check out experiences. A high tech “speed pass” version like John Kaffer in his comments above talks about is excellent. Then again, there needs to be the soft touch model…and we all know that can be improved. If there were some self-serve stations, some special service stations and some small purchase stations, that would be great. Plus, there needs to be a person directing traffic. Making sure the lines don’t go beyond a certain length and that they direct people in an orderly fashion. Plus…pre-shopping ideas would also be useful… I don’t know how it would all work exactly, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
14 years 7 months ago
Although there are opportunities for technology to improve the checkout experience, the best results come from having service oriented associates at the checkouts. Nothing can take the place of a smiling, friendly cashier who bags quickly. Hiring the right people and training and sometimes retraining is essential to empower store associates to look for ways to satisfy the customer so they leave happy, only to come back again! This is often a lost effort for retailers who cut payroll expenses so there are not adequate dollars allocated to human resources efforts at store level. Customers also would be better served if managers reacted quickly to long lines as they occur and opened more lanes or added baggers for peak times. Announcing that a new checkout is open are words that a customer wants to hear. Having one no-candy checkout has been very popular with a number of supermarkets who have offered them in response to customer requests. This eliminates some of the hassle of checking out with young children in tow. I don’t find one… Read more »
jack flanagan
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

I concur with the many comments about the need for good people skills, using technology and some ‘tried and true’ simple solutions.

What is missing in this discussion thus far is a fact-based “root cause” analysis as to why the actual transaction takes much longer than it ought to. Go observe (i.e. eyes/ears wide open, mouth closed, resist the temptation to immediately jump in with ‘the solution’) and you’ll be frankly amazed at the impediments that the company or owner puts in the way of a clean, quick and friendly transaction.

If you actually do this, you’ll frankly be amazed and pleased at the potential opportunity.

Karen McNeely
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

I think retailSEER has it nailed. Obviously the conveyer belt in the front of the store would be less costly than a bagger walking out each individual shopper. When Cub Foods was still in my area, I drove out of my way to that store for their parcel pick up.

The only thing that I would add is that grocery stores should take a cue from Midwest Airlines and cross train their employees, so they can better handle the ebb and flow of customers. If check out is busy, it should be all hands on deck with every register open. And again, rather than a self-check out (which ticks me off every time!) I’d rather see a friendly face. Pay a little more, but insist on friendly service.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

My vote for best comment goes to RetailSeer. Yes there are lots of other good suggestions but having real people packing the bags and taking them to the cars or loading them up when the customer pulls his/her car in front of the store sounds like a simple and elegant solution.

My favourite supermarket here offers another alternative, although it only makes sense when doing a big shop – call first, tell them you’re coming and book a delivery slot. Then, go to the store, fill your trolley and leave it at checkout for someone else to deal with. Within minutes of arriving home, the delivery is on the doorstep along with a bill and handheld device to swipe your credit card.

Richard Alleger
Guest
Richard Alleger
14 years 7 months ago

Many retailers have a desk at the very center of the checkout area and a person is responsible for helping customers see the fastest way through. An idea for the parking lot is a good one. One expensive but logistically palatable way is to put a roof over the center of two aisles of parking. The walk to the car may still be a bit of a mess but once at the car, a customer will be somewhat protected by the elements due to the roof. This is prevalent in Europe.

John Kafer
Guest
John Kafer
14 years 7 months ago

I’d suggest trying to eliminate the checkout experience altogether. “Push” the process closer to the moment the item is picked from the shelf. When entering the store, the customer swipes their credit card and begins a transaction number that is embedded in something like a Mobil speedpass, and that is attached to their cart (or wrist?) throughout shopping. As an item is picked, there is a nearby scanner that records that action and associates it with the transaction number — the less involvement by the customer the better. When done with shopping, the speedpass is turned in, indicating the end of the transaction, the receipt is issued, and the credit card is charged.

Matt Werhner
Guest
Matt Werhner
14 years 7 months ago

I do see the checkout experience as being undervalued and I agree that impressions can make a significant difference when it comes to loyalty and word of mouth exposure for the business. I don’t agree with the ‘single isle’ method. While it might work in other retail formats, grocery would not be one of these. You must remember that one long line gives the all important impression of a long wait time (think theme park with grocery carts — that might be a little exaggerated). Also, the store manager has more important things to do with his/her time than directing traffic.

When the wait is long, customers ask why lanes are closed. If the checkout experience is ranking high on the business priority list, start allocating more labor to the front end.

David Zahn
Guest
14 years 7 months ago
Extending on Leon Nicholas’ idea – I would want to also have the Frequent Shopper or Bigger Basket size aisle (I am all about rewarding the better customer in some ways or at least spotlighting them and acknowledging them). Since it is an RFID type checkout, it will not take longer to check out, so maybe offer those people a chance to win something or get a bigger discount or make them special in some way. Technology can provide a faster and seemingly more shopper controlled experience – and that is part of the battle. Being stuck behind someone who is writing a check and struggling to find a pen, or the person who is putting items on the side because the “kids” put it in the cart, or (you fill in the other horror stories)…is frustrating and you never are quite sure why it is taking so long… returning that ability to the customer to get in, get out and feel as if they are being well treated (and better treated than others if… Read more »
J. Peter Deeb
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

This is a question with a real cost associated answer. The cost is in training and technology. One way to speed up the checkout experience would be to use past sales data to man checkouts. Most retailers do that by sales dollars per time frame – a better suggestion would be to utilize number of transactions and number of items per order. That way enough express lines could be available and/or the number and type of checkout lines and cashiers needed could be better scheduled.

The second part is training cashiers and carry out employees to make that last experience better. Customer pick up lanes can be set up and carry out employees can be trained to pass out coupons, ask about the shopping experience etc. Some retailers are already doing some of these things (i.e. Ukrops, where customer carry out is almost always done). This is a differentiation opportunity if retailers care to invest.

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

If supermarkets were run by the travel industry they’d reserve the close-in parking spaces and shortest checkout lines for the customers who buy the most and cherry pick the least. The hard-core cherry pickers would have to wait 30 minutes to get to the front of a checkout line and their parking spaces would be in the next time zone.

David Livingston
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Those are some very interesting ideas. I’ve seen a lot of different ideas put into place in the past only to see them scrapped. Not because they didn’t work but because management needed to cut labor in order to make their numbers look good for Wall Street. I’ve got one client who has 9 or 10 checkouts and has each one of them staffed from open to close with fast, friendly, efficient cashiers. But that’s the exception and not the rule for most stores. I think one mistake many retailers make is trying to replace a good checkout experience with a low cost replacement.

Ron Margulis
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

There should certainly be a technology connection at checkout, especially for those retailers with loyalty cards. When the retail equivalents to the gaming industry’s “whales” (big, big spenders) scan their cards at the checkout, a manager should be on the floor within seconds to make sure the shopping experience met expectations. There should be an offer to help get the purchased goods to the car, and perhaps even a few special time-sensitive coupons to draw them back to the store.

POS data could also tell management when cherry pickers are checking out. These shoppers should also be given offers to convert them to profitable customers.

Dan Raftery
Guest
14 years 7 months ago
The single feeder line for checkout is an interesting idea, but not where shopping carts are involved. It seems to work at Best Buy and as Dan said several other POPs where bodies can be tightly queued. It’s not the waiting that’s the real problem – it’s the transaction. Some very basic metrics could be used to speed-up the checkout process. Systems capture the data, but who uses it as a measure of customer service? Regarding the parking lot experience, here’s an example of what’s old is new again. Urban operator Fox & Obel (Chicago) has no parking lot at their Illinois Street store. For the few customers who drive, they provide a drive up carport service. Today’s “baggers” are a potentially powerful resource to help shoppers load their groceries in the parking lot. I’m pretty sure they still loath cart round-ups, so this would be even worse. Here’s an idea – maybe the store manager and department heads could spend 10 -15 minutes a day helping people in the parking lot. That could help… Read more »
Mark Hunter
Guest
Mark Hunter
14 years 7 months ago

The front-end will always be a source of frustration. Some will argue self-scan is the solution yet at the same time self-scan is certainly not the fastest compared to a manned express-lane that has no line. The key is in providing the consumer with enough distractions they do not notice they’re waiting in line. Hotels learned this long ago and that’s why every floor has a mirror next to the elevators to allow the person waiting to check themselves out while they wait for the elevator. Grocery stores have tried televisions, etc. but too many times it becomes a “turn-off” due to excessive volume or the number of ads they run. There is no quick solution which means the best solution lies in having engaging, efficient front-end clerks who know how to check people out quickly once they do arrive at the check-stand. Then again, once we have RFID at the SKU level many of these issues will go away.

Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
14 years 7 months ago
You can say that retailers in general are spending resources to improve the shopper’s experience in their outlet. But please don’t tell me that Brain Power has been used in the shopping experience issue. If “Brain Power” was used, the checkout and parking lot issues would have been part of the shopping experience exercise and winning solution. Most retailers Big Box and others are stuck in 3rd gear on low prices, and that is it. Until the culture of a retail operation totally embraces shopper satisfaction in the shopping experience, with a top-down management approach, just don’t use the term “Brain Power” so loosely! The retail culture must be in place to truly maximize shopper appreciation and sales; and guess what? Profit for the retailer!! Bingo! Smiling and knowledgeable sales associates, customer care desks, assistance for the elderly to and from the outlet, and as some of the commentators have said, a technological “pay as you shop” device might be a happy solution to shoppers and retailers! But, please couch all within a “caring consumer”… Read more »
Joost van der Laan
Guest
Joost van der Laan
14 years 7 months ago
In my practice in The Netherlands we noted that “waiting in line” is one of five big frustrations of shoppers. We developed a successful new store format by turning these frustrations around. “High prices” became EDLP, and “not enough choice” became new product introductions based on single customer requests. For “long waiting lines” the answer was: 1. A pledge to customers that waiting lines would never be longer than three cards (to improve store image). If lines are longer, the goods are free. 2. Implementing a detecting system to measure customers entering the store, and developing a display showing the necessary open POS-units after 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 minutes (to avoid long waiting lines, but also to avoid “waiting for work”) 3. Implementing a tactical planning system, using historical data on customers and items scanned per 15 minutes of the day for each day of the week. Stores in student populations showed high turnover before and after classes; stores in rural areas showed completely different time-frames. The pledge of short lines worked out… Read more »
Ron Verweij
Guest
Ron Verweij
14 years 5 months ago
I think we must realize how behind the Checkout Experience is compared to all other store developments like narrowcasting, etc. The Checkout is really the place in the Shopping Experience that is not evolved or innovated at all; it is time for a paradigm shift where we rethink the Checkout. First question must be: how does a Retailer want to service the customer throughout your shop including the checking out process? The checkout is perceived as a bottleneck rather then the last service point. Current innovation in the Checkout only has been done from a cost saving point of view and not from a service point of view. Innovation around the Checkout is difficult. First, it is a build-up of 3 elements: fixture, ICT and ergonomics. Self-service check-outs have been developed from an ICT point of view to save the retailer the cost of a cashier; ICT companies understand ICT but not how to service a customer. A fixture manufacturer is traditional and thinks low volume, wanting to serve retailers with a generic solution. Ergonomics… Read more »