Survey Sees Need for Speed at Checkouts

Discussion
Aug 11, 2010
Bernice Hurst

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

Another day, another study
with conclusions that anyone knowing who paid for it could have safely predicted.
In this case, a survey of 2000 people conducted by Barclays Bank and published
by the BBC found 68 percent of U.K. participants
had abandoned a queue at one time or another.

Apparently more than two-thirds
abandoned the checkout line because it was taking too long to be served. Complaints
primarily focused on either too few staff at the counter or employees spending
too much time with customers. Other customers also came in for criticism for
taking "too long to find their cash, cards
or check books."

Eliminating staff "would speed things up," according
to Barclays’ assessment.

"By embracing technology and installing new payments systems, such as
contactless, retailers will stay ahead of the curve and limit the amount of
time that people are waiting in shop queues," said Stuart Neal at Barclaycard,
told BBC
News
.

Barclays suggested "a third of retailers actually move their
tills to hide the queues." This recommendation supports the revelation
that some people refuse to even enter a store if they know they will have
to wait.

While many retailers are struggling for business and desperately
trying to increase footfall, merchants are also struggling not to lose sales
because they have attracted too many customers.

Retail consultant Claire
Rayner told BBC News, "An enormous amount
of time and effort is invested to put in place labor-scheduling systems to
ensure staff are available to call to open tills … but the problem arises
when all the tills are open and the place is still heaving."

Terry Green,
whose firm, Qmatic, designed systems used in U.K. post offices, suggested using
a single line for channeling shoppers into the next available line. The key,
he said, to customer satisfaction is managing expectations. "Those
kinds of systems which give you feedback, that tell you that service is progressing,
make the queue ‘sticky’ and stop people walking away."

Discussion Question: What are the most effective methods for reducing the
amount of time consumers spend on the checkout line?

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26 Comments on "Survey Sees Need for Speed at Checkouts"


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Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Eliminating staff and relying more heavily on technology will not necessarily solve the problem. The study reveals that part of the cause of slow checkout lines is the behavior of other consumers–too slow to get their form of payment, etc. Having those consumers go through self-checkout machines does not necessarily speed up the process. In fact, it could slow the process because those consumers who have trouble getting their cash out or using their credit card in the machine are the ones who are likely to have trouble navigating the self-checkout technology.

When proposing solutions, it is important to understand the causes of the problem.

Liz Crawford
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Self-service checkout is certainly here to stay–in grocery in the US. I suspect that it would work in this context too. However, not all shoppers are inclined to use it. Studies have shown that men are 60% more likely to use self-service check out than women.

Further, when it comes to simply speeding lines, a separate queue for each till is fastest. However, psychology plays a role. Shoppers prefer a single queue (the slower option) because it seems “fairer.” So, the “sticky” sign that manages shoppers expectations is a worthwhile investment from a shopper’s perception.

Finally, wait times seem to be reduced when there is some form of entertainment or distracting engagement. This is a great opportunity for brand engagement, advertising or selling this “captive audience” wait time to a partner.

The trick is not to simply reduce wait times, but to manage them wisely.

David Livingston
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Good retailers never have to worry about slow checkouts. Slow checkouts are a symptom of other deeper operational problems such as untrained labor, disorganized scheduling, poorly trained management, or financial distress resulting in skeleton staffing.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 9 months ago
Based on research we conducted for a client there is a considerable difference between actual and perceived waiting time. Even things such as when the register tape started to print, impact this perception. Regardless if it real or not, people hate to wait. I am not sure there is any simple single solution. Frankly I like the self checkouts but find that a person who doesn’t understand how to use one takes as much or more time than a person in a regular check line that waits to get out their method of payment until the transaction is totaled. I do admit I like the single line approach as it eliminates being stuck behind the slow moving customer. Everyone waits until such time as a register is free. The draw back is that it takes space and can create the impression of a longer line (six people in a single line versus two people in a line at three different registers). I believe the solution will vary dependent on the retailer and their offer. Some… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
10 years 9 months ago

The least (not most) effective way to reduce the amount of time customers spend in a checkout line–in this day of rationed help and complicated processes–is to eliminate the number of customers, which is a pitiful process now in the works in many sectors.

The most effective way is still a work in progress among the consultants, managements and experts pursuing technological applications. But from a customer’s point of view, having more interested humans working the gates is still a hard act to beat.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

The easiest way to reduce dwell time is to open more registers. Of course, retailing has moved away from this to reduce payroll and operating costs. There’s no magic here–it’s all about how you balance service against cost.

Ian Percy
Guest
10 years 9 months ago
There are lots of holes in this story; starting with people abandoning the checkout line “at one time or another.” That is hardly razor-sharp research. At one time or another I’ve worn mis-matched socks. Wanna make something out of it? Anyway, Barclay’s has a hammer so the problem is a nail. Not much new there. I’m also bothered by the apparent need to “manage the customer’s experience.” Do customers really want someone to manage their experience? I think we’re all WAY too ‘managed’! Every part of the “experience” involves the addition or subtraction of energy. Lousy parking and the customer subtracts. Knowledgeable sales staff, they add. Roomy dressing rooms, they add again. Boring selection, subtract. Dark and foreboding paint on the walls, subtract. So by the time they get to check out, most of the adding and subtracting is done. If the pluses hugely outweigh the minuses the line-up is no problem. But if they don’t, the slightest delay is just one more reason they ‘shouldn’t shop here’. The store with the most energy always… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Fascinating that we are still talking about this, even though this has been an issue for decades. 1) Make true “express” lanes. If your average transaction size is 12 items, then a “15 item or less” lane is not an “express” lane. 2) Make lanes flexible: Install signing that can identify the terminal either as “express” (during peak lunch, etc. periods) or full service for weekend traffic). 3) Implement “Super teams” for weekend traffic where three people staff one lane to scan/tender/bag the large orders. 4) Have a “Premier” lane for those large “loyal shopper” orders. Why do we try so hard to take care of the two-item express customer and not the $150 customer? 5) There are a ton more ideas. Brainstorm with your store teams….

John Karolefski
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

The most effective method for reducing the amount of time consumers spend on the checkout line is obviously opening and staffing more checkout lanes. Of course, that’s not always possible because of the need for more staff, added costs, etc. But what is the price of annoying your best customers?

Supermarkets have Express Lanes for those buying 10 items or less. But the heavy buyer–say, with a $100+ basket–is sometimes forced to stand on line behind many customers buying a fraction of that amount. That’s annoying.

When it is time to check out, supermarkets need to treat their heavy buyers like they are their most important customers–which is what they are! Install and staff a special checkout lane just for them. Give them a special loyalty card to identify themselves.

Yes, there will be complaints from the other customers. But who do you want to please more: the heavy buyers or the light-to-medium buyers?

Cathy Hotka
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

I am with Ralph–there are lots of things retailers can do to speed up checkout lanes. But eliminating staff is not one of them, despite that suggestion in the piece above. Short staffing is one of the reasons that checkout lanes are slow…why does it seem that some retailers are shocked, shocked! to learn that customers have shown up and want to buy things.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Every retailer must decide as part of their strategy what their customer service component will be and then execute it. The down home friendly store should chat up the customer. The discount format must move the traffic through. Most retailers put out a call for checkers when there are 3 customers in line. The problem is, no one is watching to put the call out.

Whole Foods uses the single line going to the next checker system in New York City as do most banks. The perception is it’s a long wait line, but the line moves quickly. The single line takes up valuable retail space, which is why few food retailers have tried it. The answer could be to empower checkers to make the call for more checkers and not rely on someone else to do it.

Kevin Graff
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Great ideas above, especially the ones about adding a lane for your best (highest spending) customers. A few other notes and suggestions, just for fun (however, if you’ve been in line behind these scenarios you probably agree):

– eliminate change purses from use by customers in all stores
– mandate customers take a course on using a self-checkout lane before they can use it
– Only if you can carry it all in your arms do you get to go through the Express Line … 12 or 15 items should not qualify as express.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
10 years 9 months ago
Distraction works. Call it entertainment, news, etc. There are plenty of queuing studies that reinforce this solution to the dwell time on any line. But, it really does not solve the problem. It only masks it. When the nearby Home Depot opened, they had 4 self service checkouts and 16 traditional checkouts. For several months associates would encourage people to leave the traditional checkout and try the self service. The associates would help them with the process. Now two years later that store has 12 self service checkouts and 12 traditional checkouts. (For every traditional checkout they removed, they could install 2 self serves.) Yesterday only two of the traditional checkouts were manned, serving only one customer. At the same time there were 7 customers using the self-serve. There were no lines. How many times have we stood in the line at a supermarket with 16 checkouts, but only 3 or 4 manned? The reality is, at that time there are only 3 or 4 checkouts. It doesn’t matter how many they have idle. Now… Read more »
Doug Fleener
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

I agree with the idea of improving the experience and opening more checkout lines. One simple way that retailers can improve the checkout experience is to change the expectations of the staff that supports the self-checkout lines.

In most stores these employees react to problems rather than proactively engage customers and speed up the process. Even just bagging the groceries for the customer would cut down on the waiting time. This area should be staffed by the best and brightest employees, but sometimes it feels that these employees are moved there because they were the slowest on the registers.

Edward Weisberg
Guest
Edward Weisberg
10 years 9 months ago

Technology is clearly coming to provide an alternative solution for consumers who do not wish to wait in cash register lines. There are interesting solutions being developed, most notably by companies such as AisleBuyer, LLC (www.aislebuyer.com). Their solution will allow the consumer to use their mobile device to learn more about a product on the shelf, compare pricing, and actually make the purchase right on their phone. This eliminates their need to deal with the cash register queues. Of course, there will still be many consumers who will still want to buy the old-fashioned way (just as there are still many drivers who wait in long lines to pay highway tolls rather than obtaining a “fastlane” type transmitter), but products such as AisleBuyer will give them a great alternative. This will also drive down costs for the retailer, and provide a consistent level of support to consumers who are looking for more information on product features and pricing.

Eric Waldbaum
Guest
Eric Waldbaum
10 years 9 months ago

Amazing to note that some 50 years after I wrote a computer program for scheduling supermarket checkouts, the core issue remains virtually ignored. The time that it takes to process orders at the checkout (a.k.a. capturing revenue) may equal the number of customers times the average (sic) time to serve a customer. However, customer arrivals (generally Poisson) are not regularly spaced, nor is service time per customer fixed (rather, expressed as an Erlangian-k function). So to serve customers, supermarkets (also Homeland Security airport queues, etc.) need to make available more servers than are required on the average if queues are to be controlled (limited in size). Hence, the problem reduces to cross-training to make sure that all paid time is productive. Q.E.D.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
10 years 9 months ago

In an ideal world, a retailer would offer different checkouts for different classes of customers, with an expedited line for very best customers. That approach is difficult to execute because of the ill will that would be generated from other non-qualifying customers.

But you can simulate such an approach with special store hours for Best Customers (with faster lines, since fewer people would be in the store), the ability to order in advance or have things held for them, and speed-pass like services for quicker checkout.

Remember, the issue is not what the experience is for the “average” customer, but how your very best (and high potential) customers perceive their experience. When the quantity of low-value customers starts to erode the experience of better customers, it is time to start experimenting with alternatives.

Anne O'Neill
Guest
Anne O'Neill
10 years 9 months ago

It always surprises me that the cashier, who may be the only contact the customer has with your store, is the least paid and most under appreciated. If the goal of all hired is to be PROMOTED to cashier, you would have your best people interacting and engaging and there by taking care of your customers.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
10 years 9 months ago

Or, retailers could just use Publix as a case study and go from there. Have enough lanes open and cashiers on duty to keep up with store traffic, have baggers at checkout, have someone available to carry merchandise to cars and return carts from the parking lot, etc. The solution sometimes isn’t to automate everything but to commit to proper staffing levels and top customer service. Impossible? Publix does it every day, in many different markets.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 9 months ago

I’ve always found it amazing that I can wait 40 minutes in a line-up at Disney World and it feels like 4. Yet I wait 4 minutes at the grocery store and it feels like 40. It’s because Disney makes standing in line part of the experience.

The reason for cart abandonment is that by the time the customer gets to the checkout in most stores they’ve pretty much been abandoned by the retailer. There’s nothing to see, no distractions, no entertainment, no added value…the experience is OVER. And it’s a rarity if the cashier actually adds value.

Retailers have to begin to look at the checkout as an integral part of the experience, not something that sits apart from it. If anything, it’s the final, lasting impression.

Kai Clarke
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

This is a poor survey. It is UK based which really does not apply here to the USA market. I cannot remember the last time I saw people leaving a checkout because it “took too long.”

Furthermore, our checklanes and technologies that are used, as well as the larger store footprints in many of our retailers allow more shoppers through each aisle, faster. This does not happen in the store layouts and designs in Europe because of the limited footprints, checklane designs and technologies used (overall). You would never see a 50-60 checklane store in Europe like we have here in the USA at a Meijer, some Fry’s, Wal-Marts, etc. Our large footprint C-stores sometimes rival their standard footprint grocery stores in Europe. Again, flawed information and a flawed result….

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

Count me as one who will leave the cart filled with what I needed to purchase at the checkout line if it is too long. Yes, I have no patience for long lines and refuse to wait. That is unless I am with my wife who will stay and wait it out. UGH!

I have been unofficially watching self service checkouts at both Walmart and Home Depot over the past few months. Both appear to be getting more customer usage and acceptance. I can see this as a useful tool. But what are we doing to the human element and needed human interaction? We can not eliminate or even reduce this to the point it becomes a minor piece of the shopping experience. One reason we shop certain favorite stores is because of the human interaction, not the speed of the checkout. So let’s not be so quick to begin the elimination process. Service is not dead.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

The fact that half the transactions in typically supermarkets involve purchases of 5 or fewer items – CHECK YOUR T-LOGS!!! – means that tiering is about the only way to optimize, other than eliminating checkout entirely. Ample self-checkouts are the way to go, ultimately pushing for ALL checkouts to be self-checkouts. Build the equipment, and they will come. Meanwhile, a substantial supply of self-checkouts let the shoppers “tier” themselves.

Obviously, Tesco is onto the 100% self-checkout, since that is the mode at Fresh & Easy. However, all self-checkouts do require staffing for assistance. I notice nearly everyone who added a few self-checkout lanes years ago is beefing up the number substantially during remodels. The right thing to do. 100% self-checkout – with available assistant expediters can be done NOW. A few self-service lanes could be used for backup, rather than as the principle mode.

Stephen Bellamy
Guest
Stephen Bellamy
10 years 9 months ago
I must object to Kai Clarke’s comments about retailers in Europe. There are many retailers that have 50+ checkout stores. Ever been to an IKEA store? Their store in North London has 66 checkouts. Granted, the average store size here is smaller. I also had to laugh at the comment about technology in retail in the US compared to Europe. Customers in the US still have to swipe their cards and sometimes use a signature instead of using Chip and Pin cards. They still use checks! I haven’t even seen a check here (Sweden) in years. To the point of the article… There are several technology factors that can contribute to speeding up checkouts and reducing waiting times. 1. Self Service, once the customers know how to use them. Ergonomics and usability work can speed up the learning process. 2. Speeding up the average transaction times in normal checkouts – faster thermal printers, easier to use POS systems, well designed checkout furniture all have a role to play. 3. Card only checkouts. These are much… Read more »
Kenneth Leung
Guest
10 years 9 months ago

The key would be a two track approach: optimize actual wait time and perceived wait time.

You can optimize actual wait time with improved scheduling by leveraging video analytics to make sure there are enough cashiers available to open lanes to shorten the actual checkout time.

You can optimize perceived wait time with a combination of store layout and also informational displays such as digital signs.

There is no perfect solution; it is a matter of optimizing labor costs against lost business and perception issues.

Devangshu Dutta
Guest
Devangshu Dutta
10 years 9 months ago

Call me lazy, but I’m imagining an RFID doorway that I walk through with my RFID-tagged purchases and an RFID-tagged credit card that is charged as well. The card is paid automatically from my bank account the next month. The only link remaining in this chain is someone to top up my bank account automatically as well each month.

A single-file for multiple tills may keep the line moving, but will probably result in more carts being abandoned earlier, and possibly the store being abandoned by the customer altogether.

I think retailers need a combination of factors, including simpler check-out interfaces, technology, and flexible labeling of tills (perhaps true “express” could mean less than 5 items, “light” for 5-15, and normal for more than 15). But to my mind the most important ingredient is staff training. You can see this in stores, at airports, and even highway toll booths where cash changes hands. When in doubt, train, and retrain.

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