To Self-Checkout or Not

Discussion
Jul 13, 2011
George Anderson

From the very first moment that a self-checkout appeared, there has been a debate in retailing circles over the relative merits of traditional human-based checkouts versus systems where consumers handle their own transactions. It’s fair to say that in recent years a growing number of stores have chosen to add self-service lanes as a means to move consumers through the front-end at a lower cost.

Recent news that Albertsons LLC (not Supervalu’s Albertsons) was removing self-checkouts from its 217 stores has brought both cheers and jeers from consumers and industry watchers, depending on where they come down on the issue.

The company wrote on its Facebook page: “When we decided to begin removing the SCOT lanes, it was with one goal in mind: provide better customer service. It’s that simple. If you have a chance to talk with someone before you leave a store, odds are you’ll let us know how it went — whether we met your expectations, if there were items you were looking for but couldn’t find, etc., rather than not saying anything. We want you to tell us what’s not working so we can fix it. We want to know how we can better service you when you shop, and that interaction between you and our associates, right when you’re in the store, is key to making that happen. We’ve got other channels where we talk to you too, like through Facebook, Twitter and our website, but we know that the fastest way to resolve something or make your experience a better one is at the moment that you’re shopping.”

Kroger has also been experimenting with a store concept that uses it Advantage Checkout scan tunnel with read rates of 98.5 percent or higher to speed consumers through the front-end while freeing cashiers to bag items being purchased. A RetailWire poll in January found that 68 percent thought it somewhat or very likely that checkouts in the future would resemble Kroger’s tunnel scanner.

Self-checkout providers point to a variety of benefits for consumers and stores alike.

“It’s more about customer preference,” Greg Egan, vice president of retail solutions for NCR, told Dow Jones Newswires. “We’ve made dramatic improvements in the technology over the years but there’s always going to be the folks who want that traditional interaction at the end.”

Discussion Questions: Do you see the retail industry moving toward or away from self-checkouts? What will checkout stations look like in the future?

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25 Comments on "To Self-Checkout or Not"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

There’s a reason I recently wrote "Cold Self-Service: 0, Warm Humans: 1" which said in part, “if an industry with one of the lowest net margins and median profits EBITDA (before income taxes and extraordinary items) was 1.57% in 2010, is backing away from technology to put actual human beings in the store, maybe the rush to all things technological isn’t all its cracked up to be.

Which of course, has always been my point…humanity – it’s what’s missing from retail these days.

Mark Burr
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
There is not likely to be any change in self-checkout. The customer will expect it to be there, whether they use it or not. Reading between the lines of the statement for removal says: “We were unable to effectively train a shopper assistant to support these lanes and create an even better shopping experience. We’re now going to give you dissatisfaction at all lanes and provide service levels at what we decide – not what you expect from us.” Self-checkout, deployed properly, both saves labor and enhances customer service. Deployed with excellence, it’s an astonishing gain for both the customer and the retailer. Their stated reasoning or not, it’s a bad decision and a reflection on the ability of this retailer to effectively execute. There’s obviously more to the decision than stated. If I was their customer, I’d be disappointed. I’m sure that I wouldn’t be alone in that. The idea that self-checkout is some sort of disconnect with the customer is a failure to understand the means by which a retailer can both achieve… Read more »
Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Self-checkout works well for smaller orders. The customer feels that they have more control (based on a limited sample of people I have spoken with), i.e., they are not waiting in a speed check lane behind someone with more items than they should, someone who waits to start looking for their checkbook until the order is totaled, etc. In fact, I often see people using SCO when there are manned lanes open. If these individuals had a complaint, wanted to ask a questions, etc., they had the option of using any of the manned lanes. I expect to see SCO continue to grow in the retail environments such as supermarkets, building supply stores, and other retailer locations where customers often have market baskets with a limited number of smaller items.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

It’s best to give consumers a choice. Even this Luddite has come to love self-checkouts, which have come a long way over the past couple years. But if I have produce, or items that have historically been a problem, I just get in line for a human. The weird effect here: if I am shopping at a peak period when the store is really busy, with long lines at the human checkouts and I choose to go to self-checkout (because many people avoid them), my basket looks a little different in that I don’t buy things that have historically proven problematic at self-scan. I generally pick up the fill-in stuff later at a different store, or a different trip.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
9 years 10 months ago

The answer depends on the positioning of the retailer to begin with and the experience they’re attempting to deliver. If you’re promise is to deliver a high convenience, low price experience then self-check makes sense. However, if it’s about a high fidelity, concierge level of service, then checkout is an important final, personal and human touch. What you can’t have is manned checkout with cashiers who add no value to the experience.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Perhaps we’ll see a move away from self-checkouts as we know them, (those choke points full of frustrated consumers who can’t get products to scan, thieves looking for product to scam and yes–very frustrated employees trying to supervise a half dozen customers who apparently can’t–or won’t–read.

That said, and the industry always interested in replacing labor costs with technology, we may see some more effective seamless digital solution.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
9 years 10 months ago
Most everything is better when done in moderation and self-checkout is no exception. When a customer has less than 10 items and usually no fresh produce, a self-checkout is attractive. That said you just let a customer leave without providing any feedback (good or bad). The personal touch of a checkout persona can make all the difference in keeping or earning a customer in the long run. Trader Joe’s is a great example. They are passionate about having quick and efficient checkout lines, but all of them are manned by an employee who spends time engaging and building a relationship with that customer. I have see people change lanes even when the line is longer so they can talk to their favorite checkout person. No question, Trader Joe’s employees are well trained to ask and accept feedback. More importantly, they are empowered to do something about that feedback. In the future, Trader Joe’s may add self-checkout or maybe they will continue to be the retailer they pushes the envelope on customer engagement because it proves… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
Self-checkouts seems to work out well for retailers that cannot get attractive and friendly cashiers. If a customer’s last experience in the store is coming face to face with a gum chewing tattooed cashier with purple hair and multiple piercings, then by all means you need self-checkouts. Many of my clients have chosen not to have self checkouts and instead provide a pleasurable exit experience. With all the loyalty card issues, coupons, reusable bag refunds, liquor ID, cold medicine ID, rainchecks, etc, most self checkout systems can only handle the simple transactions. In more difficult areas, it gives customers a license to steal. You know you are in a rough area when you go into Walmart and they don’t have self-checkouts. Right now, stores with self-checkouts have a cashier running from one to the other in a panic to try to solve all the glitches. The future? Don’t know but if technology can’t be improved to solve all the glitches and with a continued labor shortage of qualified cashiers, I don’t see much change.
Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

I would think you would offer the best of both worlds wherever possible and let the shopper choose. When I have short trips for common items, I’ll go to Kroger because I can self-scan. There’s always someone by the self-scanners (for alcohol and tobacco)–if a retailer wants to touch base with self-scanning customers, there’s the opportunity.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Retailers will try new ways to save on labor costs and consumers will react to them. Some will be adopted, others will be discarded. It’s a delicate dance, without a clear path forward.

Justin Time
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Too much information, that’s the disadvantage of service registers. The small talk chit chat drives me crazy. Self serve means you ALMOST never have to interact with a human. It can be a calming experience. Self scanners are pleasant and never have a bad day.

Safeway has increased their self scanners, and for me and millions of their customers, it gives us a quick way to check out, and gives them a distinct edge, because they have installed the latest technology. I really don’t miss the numerous mispronunciations of my last name by Safeway clerks.

Rick Moss
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

It seems that the primary motivation for consumers to use self checkouts is to avoid inefficient manned checkouts. If cognizant of this, it means retailers are using them purely for cost savings, and if that’s the case, why not offer the shopper a monetary incentive for using them? Only seems fair and would certainly sweeten the experience.

Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
9 years 10 months ago

Retailers that focused on the labor cost savings of self checkout turned it into something just as (or more) inconvenient than the traditional version. Good for them in the short term, but no perceived value by the customer, and overall a long term negative for both.

Meanwhile, online it is a single click with retailers that I shop regularly–no lines, no waiting, no mistakes.

Time to rethink “checkout,” driving BOTH retailer efficiencies and customer convenience.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 10 months ago

Self-checkout offers choice to the customer and, as such, is a plus to the overall shopping experience.

While it’s easy for someone in the home office to make bold statements about improving the customer experience, the associates in the store will probably tell you that, given a choice between long lines created by cuts in payroll hours or checking yourself out quickly, most customers appreciate the option of getting out quickly. I know I do.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

At the end of the day it is all about consumer choice. Therefore, like the many line extensions offered in stores, checkout options will reflect consumer preferences. I applaud technology to make checkout easier and faster (the #1 consumer complaint).

However, regardless of the technology employed, I caution against simply putting the labor savings to the bottom line. Instead, I recommend deploying some of the staff to selected areas of the store to increase customer interaction (and assistance) during the shopping trip.

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
9 years 10 months ago

Self service has become a part of the retail landscape and shoppers have come to accept it. Some shoppers find it superior to traditional checkouts while others do not.

Retailers need to look at the banking model for direction and allow shoppers to select the form of transaction they prefer, whether it be personal service or technology facilitated.

Albertsons has certainly made a statement about their own strategy and operational issues. They may well find that the elimination of a self checkout option could put them at a competitive disadvantage, particularly with the younger, tech oriented shoppers.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

I foresee self-checkouts as a wave of future ways to reduce employee count and increase the speed of getting buyers in and out of the stores. This can also allow for more sales staff on the floor aiding customers in their selections.

While I am opposed to the lack of human interaction; do see this as part of the improved services a retailer can offer their customers. There are some retailers whose cashiers are so bland and non-communicative that there might as well be a self-checkout lane. My favorite grocer is Publix. I assume they will add self-checkout lanes soon. That will not change my pattern of going through the traditional cashier checkout. Mostly they are friendly and interesting to speak with.

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

There can be delays in the self-checkout lane as well as in the regular check-out lanes. Even if you are the only one in line, you may receive the dreaded “Please wait for assistance” announcement. There is no guarantee that self-checkout is quicker. Whether there are regular check-out lanes, current self-checkout lanes, or some new version, consumers just want to get through quickly.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
9 years 10 months ago

I consider my time valuable and time in a checkout line is wasted time. Self-checkout is necessary unless the retailers are going to properly staff their stores and train their employees. As very few retailers have the business acumen to properly do this, I cannot see the self-checkout going away.

Kai Clarke
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Self-checkouts are clearly the wave of the present. We will continue to see these, and variations on them, which assist the consumer at getting them out of the store quicker and enhancing their customer experience while paying for their selected items.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

When checkout as we know it can be entirely eliminated electronically, bricks-and-mortar stores may still find service staff to be economically productive. But is it really necessary for 80% of shoppers to waste their time in a checkout line when they would rather be gone?

It’ll be a while before this issue is resolved, but it WILL be in favor of self- or non-checkout.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

“If you have a chance to talk with someone before you leave a store, odds are you’ll let us know how it went…rather than not saying anything”

My experience with Albertsons–before a popular uprising virtually forced them out of the state–suggests that in THEIR case it’s probably true…but that’s not a good thing. I don’t believe most retailers have this issue–well run ones anyway–and they’re better off giving people a choice…to paraphrase the old candy bar ad: sometimes you feel like meeting a purple-haired clerk, and sometimes you don’t.

Marge Laney
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Self-checkout is great if everything works as advertised. But, the solution and the process stinks when we have to wait in long self-checkout lanes waiting for the one associate to run around checking IDs, helping a customer weigh produce, or resetting a confused machine. Technology is great when it works flawlessly, but when it doesn’t, no matter how angry we get, it doesn’t care, apologize, or try to fix the problem. Grocery is a crowded segment with small margins, and loyalty counts. Personal connections and service with a smile builds loyalty, not machines (or associates) that don’t give a damn.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Call me skeptical but I believe that there are other reasons why some retail chains want to close down the self-checkouts. Otherwise, why not give consumers a choice? No one is forced to use self-checkouts. It could be that self-checkouts breed greater theft, or possibly that it actually costs more to maintain self-checks than it does to maintain regular check stands.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

SCO is here to stay. It IS retail segment dependent. However, SCO IS a customer service option. For those customers whom want more choice and control of their shopping experience, we still see SCO growing around the globe. In fact, it’s growing faster than ever.

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