Shoppers have a love/hate relationship with self-checkouts

Photo: NRF
Feb 19, 2020
Tom Ryan

Consumers are increasingly favoring self-checkout because of the perception that it can be faster than using a cashier. Frustrations, however, with the technology persist.

A recent Wall Street Journal article — “Stores and Shoppers Agree: Self-Checkout Is Hard” — details how Walmart has quietly disabled or removed the weight sensors used to detect miss-scanned items because too many “wait for assistance” messages were being triggered, to the annoyance of shoppers. Walmart is making use of cameras in some cases as a solution.

Theft also remains an issue at self-service registers, with tricks such as scanning a less inexpensive item becoming popular. Retailers, however, typically have an aversion to having staff confront shoplifters directly.

A recent survey sponsored by weighing technology firm Shekel Brainweigh found that nearly:

  • Eighty percent of consumers needed assistance at least once during their self-checkout experience and almost 30 percent were pulled aside by store personnel to check their purchases.
  • Sixty percent were more likely to use self-checkout if technology improvements (system simplification, automated entries and more accuracy) were deployed.
  • Twenty-five percent said the fastest possible checkout would significantly improve their experience.

The Journal article noted that Walmart and Target are both installing more self-checkout stations with remodels, and Costco is also adding more due to labor savings. Retailers assert many customers favor self-serve’s promise of a quicker checkout, and the rise of mobile technology has led greater comfort with do-it-yourself shopping.

A new study from PYMNTS and USA Technologies — “The Future of Unattended Retail” — similarly found many consumers who use unattended retail channels, from vending machines and self-serve kiosks to cashierless stores, do so because such solutions are faster (cited by 49.4 percent) and offer shorter lines (34.7 percent). Thirty-three percent like to take their time while shopping without talking to employees.

Yet another issue facing the expansion of self-serve registers is a potential backlash due to the loss of cashier jobs. Customers in the U.K. have threatened to boycott Aldi over its expansion of self-service checkouts. In Oregon, a federation of workers is proposing a ballot petition to limit self-checkouts to two per store due to concerns over lost jobs tied to automation.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are self-checkout terminals at this point providing more convenience or annoyance for consumers? Do you see better solutions arriving that address the technology’s shortcomings? Do rising concerns over cashier-job losses need to be addressed?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The self-checkout is supposed to be fast and convenient but that’s not always the case. Until they are perfected I’ll opt for a live cashier every time. "
"The next iteration of this technology that will not require removing products from your shopping cart will make this even better. Technology is only going to improve."
"Whatever kinks there are today in self-checkout technology can and will be eliminated."

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33 Comments on "Shoppers have a love/hate relationship with self-checkouts"

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Michael La Kier

On the whole self-checkout is a positive, offering more convenience than hassle, but the technology needs significant improvement to ensure current shopper frustrations are eliminated. In a world that has given us Amazon Go, today’s clunky self-checkout technology (requiring intervention constantly) seems outdated.

Bob Phibbs

This perennial discussion seems to always come back to “X is putting more in, Y is ripping them out.” The promise still does not live up to actual customer use. And if 30 percent of the time you’re calling me over to make sure I actually bought what I scanned — no thank you.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
1 year 1 month ago

Bob, you are 100 percent on the money! 30 percent being called over to check the purchases? 80 percent need assistance at least once? If we were talking about almost any other in-store tech those numbers would be considered failures. My personal experience confirms the 80 percent figure – more often than not, there is a problem with something I’ve scanned, typically because the item is too small or lightweight to be detected properly or has an issue with how it is scanned. Self-checkout is not the same as a mobile scan and go approach – which typically works very well in my experience. I’m normally one to embrace in-store tech in my shopping experience but self-check stations are something I try to avoid – too match hassle.

Jeff Weidauer

Self-checkout shows just how much retail has lost sight of serving the customer. With long lines, indifferent cashiers, and purchases poorly bagged, “full-service” checkout is an oxymoron, so you might as well do it yourself. While Amazon Go-type technology might help, that’s not around the corner, which means things aren’t likely to change in the near term. Supermarkets are another step closer to becoming gas stations, which used to be called “service stations.” So much for progress.

Suresh Chaganti
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
1 year 1 month ago

Self-checkouts are here to stay, and it is a matter of customers getting used to it over time. Anecdotally, in my area I see Walmart and Meijer expanding self checkouts, with additional options for mobile scan for speedy checkout.

Richard Hernandez

The method for creating acceptance for self check-out is two-fold:

  1. Companies have to go all-in. This gets customers acclimated to self-checkout being there and more importantly gets them comfortable using them.
  2. Assistance should always be available (for ID checks, weighing items, etc. ).

In retailers that have self-checkouts installed, I have seen more people try them if they see that there is assistance available in case they need help.

I think the same can be said for scan and go — a relatively new technology where the kinks are still being worked out, but it can definitely be a time saver if you learn how to use it and use it on a frequent basis.

Cathy Hotka

My grocer installed lots of self-checkout, with associates available only for express lane purchases. Big mistake. While customers were scanning their purchases, the system was yelling at them to start bagging “Remove Items From BELT!” then demanding payment while the cart still had items in it. Self-checkout is fine for a customer who wants to buy a magazine, but it doesn’t work in all situations.

Bob Amster

Most of the adoption or frustration comes from the consumers’ mindsets. If you embrace technology you go to the self-checkout lanes. If you are afraid of technology, or are not in the mood to do any work, or you enjoy schmoozing with the cashier, you go to the cashier lane. Whatever kinks there are today in self-checkout technology can and will be eliminated.

Rob Gallo

The answer depends on several factors including trip type. If you have a few items that are all barcoded, weigh more than a few ounces and there is no line in front of you then self-checkout becomes a time saver. If you increase that basket to include produce, very light items and items that are part of a loyalty discount (the self-checkout announces your savings before letting you scan the next item) then things really slow down and frustration ensues. To make matters worse, retailers sometimes have zero staffed checkouts (even at key traffic times) available forcing the inexperienced folks through self-checkout which further slows things down.

From what I have seen the equation is whether the labor savings is higher than the increase in shrink. I would like to see store managers with more authority to step in when necessary to help customers and better manage the queue.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I don’t believe that 80 percent of the people experience a problem, although I do believe that 80 percent might have needed help at least once in their lifetime while using a checkout scanner. This isn’t a complex process and stores should be regularly checking each terminal for functioning. My Kroger, for example, has the lane assistants constantly checking their own baskets to make sure the system functions correctly.

Craig Sundstrom

I agree, though the claim is actually that 80% “required assistance,” which could be something as simple as verification you brought a bag.

Neil Saunders

A lot of this comes down to personal preference and it is best for retailers to provide options for both assisted and self-checkout. That said, many retailers need to work harder at making self-checkout easier for customers. The biggest issue here is weight sensors which are annoying because they frequently don’t work properly. Target doesn’t use them and it makes the process much smoother with far fewer interventions by staff.

Georganne Bender

Full disclosure: self-checkouts hate me. You’re thinking operator error, I’m glad I’m not alone. The self-checkout is supposed to be fast and convenient but that’s not always the case. Until they are perfected I’ll opt for a live cashier every time. Convenience for consumers like me is a sharp cashier and a talented bagger. People are an important part of the in-store experience.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
1 year 1 month ago
I find self-checkout to be quite perplexing for the industry. Most implementations I have used are poorly executed and more often than not require assistance anyway to resolve an issue so any perceived performance benefits are usually negated. If shopper perception is that self-checkout stations will be faster then this is more indicative of a customer service issue the retailer should be solving directly, rather than bypassing the problem with new technology. If 80 percent need assistance, and 30 percent still have to be checked by an associate, how is this a customer service win for the customer? With any other in-store tech this would be considered a failure. Mobile scan and go tech, however, seems to work far better in almost all situations. If we really analyze this, the types of retailers where self-checkout is most commonly found are grocery, home improvement, and mass merchandisers – exactly the kind of stores where the merchandise itself will cause more problems with scanning than customers should have to tolerate. I think this is a mismatch of… Read more »
Brandon Rael

It all comes down to execution with the self-checkout process. Self-checkouts, in theory, are line-busters and part of removing friction from the checkout process. However as the process matures, more often than not, it’s full of friction and challenges and requires intervention from the store associates.

If the goal is to remove friction from the checkout process, then there is some work to be done to make the experience more intuitive. Target has made strides by driving innovation in this space with a far more seamless experience. This could become a differentiator, as retailers move to a more self-service checkout model.

Ralph Jacobson

The national chain by our home recently replaced multiple full-serve terminals with self-serve units. Now there are lines at the staffed lanes because anything larger than “express”-sized orders are a pain to process by the customer. Giving the customer a balanced (based on historical, store-specific trends) choice and control of the checkout experience is the way to go, while continuing to work on the technology.

Dick Seesel

At my nearby Kroger stores (branded as Pick N Save and Metro Market in Milwaukee), self-checkout is gaining in popularity but at the expense of staffed checkout lanes. Even though the technology is improving, it’s still cumbersome to figure out how to scan fresh produce in particular. So a full shopping cart with complex items usually ends up at a limited number of full-service lanes, with inordinate wait times.

This may not be others’ experience with their local grocery chains, and on the whole self-checkout is a win for stores like Home Depot or Kohl’s where the process is relatively simple. But any store using self-checkout needs to manage the loss prevention issue — if not physically checking customers’ bags, then stationing somebody by the cluster of self-service kiosks to keep an eye on things.

Lisa Goller

Today self checkouts are more accurate, efficient and convenient than ever. For the most part, their bar code scan accuracy rate is far higher than it was 15 years ago.

However, the terminals still politely suggest I’m a thief when I shift a product, causing the total weight to fluctuate. The terminals’ weight sensitivity still needs work to deliver the promise of fast, convenient and hassle-free service.

While cashiers see the threat of their looming obsolescence, their roles have evolved to serve consumers by solving bottlenecks at self checkouts. As in every sector, technology disruption is forcing cashiers to adapt to a new reality.

Harley Feldman

In most cases, self-checkout provides more convenience than annoyance except for weight measuring sensors. For a small number of items, the self-checkout lines are typically much quicker than finding a short line at the cashier-based registers. The weight sensors make many mistakes and slow down the lines dramatically. Glad that Target and Walmart have removed them.

Another technology that might work is a vision system that recognizes the purchase item without having to position the barcode. However, vision systems are technically difficult to develop to work with all products in all orientations. RFID is another technology that allows the RF signal to capture the UPC code regardless of orientation. Some retailers are moving forward with RFID.

Concerns over cashier job losses need to be listened to. However cost savings usually win out in the long run as no one likes higher prices. The cashier-less systems are a result of stores cutting labor costs, and this trend will continue.

Cynthia Holcomb

Without naming retailer names, self-checkout has become for me the preferred poison over the bored, sometimes rude, throwing the groceries in a bag “service” of today’s “new” customer experience cashier. Both methods are becoming so customer/consumer adverse that the pleasure of shopping for a week of groceries is now a stressful event. Those in charge of CX need to shop their own stores. New ways of customer service seem to be invisible to customers. CX is now the equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes hoax.

Ken Lonyai

I do not have any interest in self-checkout except for time savings. The experience varies with the store. For example, I hate the hand held scanners Home Depot now has—they are often quite unclean. Likely other customers feel like me and a percentage may seek interaction with human cashiers, so except for stores that are 100 percent scan and go, checkout will always be a mix of options.

Job loss is going to increase with all forms of automation. At least retail has many opportunities and most cashiers can be migrated to new roles if they are willing.

Peter Charness

Self-checkout can work just fine. Costco having added self-checkout stations makes it easy to visit that store for just a few items. They have plenty of people supporting the shopper efforts. However self-checkout doesn’t mean the retailer can cut the staff down to zero. One person present for four to six checkouts for quick help does the trick. It’s the retailers that aren’t properly staffing the self-checkouts for the inevitable help needed that don’t get it.

Gib Bassett
This is the perfect subject for me, as I have a lot of experience with this at my local area Albertsons banner Jewel. Here has been my experience: with a relatively small basket size of items that are easily scanned (versus requiring identification through screen prompts or weighing, like produce), this is very fast and convenient. I tend to shop at rather busy times with even the under 15 items line often being long. You do need to listen to the voice prompts. If you do not place an item after scanning onto a weight-sensitive table, your scanning deactivates until an associate comes by to reset it. So for larger items – toiletries, beverages, etc. – you cannot scan and place the item directly into your cart – unless you intervene in the process and tell the system. The bottom line is that with experience, you get much more efficient and effective. I’d say given the waste of time it is to wait in line, even if a consumer has a relatively poor experience the… Read more »
Stephen Rector

Self-checkout works when you are buying a couple of items – I like it at CVS but find it really hard to manage when I am buying produce at the grocery store. To have to scan through the multiple types of peppers available to find the one you bought is cumbersome and frustrating. When I have a shopping cart full of merchandise, I can get out quicker if I go to the line with an associate that has the produce codes memorized and I can focus on bagging it all up myself.