Will 2018 be the last holiday season for long checkout lines?

Discussion
Photo: Target
Nov 20, 2018
William Hogben

Black Friday and holiday shopping media coverage are typically characterized by headlines and news segment introductions that breathlessly tell of lines “out the door” and “around the block.” As recently as last year, long lines were viewed by retailers as a fantastically effective way to send the message to customers that there are products inside worth waiting for. And these same long lines were presented to investors as a bellwether to indicate the company’s financial prospects.

Contrast this to 2018, which is shaping up to be the “year of skipping the line” with Target and Walmart making recent headlines by announcing “skip-the-line” checkout technology rollouts. What happened? Amazon’s huge bet that line-free checkout will be a key competitive edge may have had an impact. Bloomberg reported that Amazon may open as many as 3,000 cashier-free Go stores in coming years.

Why are retailers focusing on eliminating lines this year? Anything that constrains profits is a significant problem, and long lines do more than that – they represent an existential threat to retailers because the whole concept of waiting to pay stands in stark contrast to every significant trend in retail, as well as society. Consumers are driving a social shift towards on-demand everything. Making customers wait is a mortal sin, whether it’s for a taxi, a webpage to load or to checkout at a store.

While this may seem like a sea-change for many, line-free shopping experiences, particularly those using mobile technology, is the future of brick and mortar stores. The reality is that long lines inflict untold long-term damage on profitability, and it has nothing to do with the time of year. According to a 2016 survey of holiday shoppers by Deloitte, crowds are the number one reason for not shopping in brick-and-mortar retail stores, as well as long lines and slow checkouts.

E-commerce has forever changed shoppers’ expectations with respect to convenience and customization. Heading into next year’s holiday season, perhaps the headlines will focus on convenience and meaningful customer interactions as retailers put technology in place that will put an end to lines at the checkout. That would make for a merry Christmas for customers and retailers alike.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How long do you think it will be before news reports no longer focus on lines outside of stores on Black Friday? Do you agree that long lines could be an existential threat for retailers? What technology or strategy looks most promising for eliminating lines?

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Braintrust
"You only have to look at posts on social media to know that Black Friday isn’t just shopping, it’s a sport."
"Eliminating the checkout line is one of the most compelling changes to retailing in my lifetime."
"Long lines of anticipating customers waiting for doors to open is good and long lines inside the store is bad!"

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22 Comments on "Will 2018 be the last holiday season for long checkout lines?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

The long lines are media fodder and I expect we’ll continue to see this covered for many more seasons to come. Long lines are a conversion and customer experience killer. Increasingly, retailers are making investments in mobile POS to reduce checkout friction, and progress is being made. That said, there’s still plenty of work retailers need to do to optimize and refine this — but it is coming. Ultimately, the retailers who successfully acquire and deploy mobile POS will gain advantage over those retailers who don’t.

Jeff Sward
Guest

I view technology as a sliver of the solution. Black Friday deals started earlier than ever this year. No big surprise. So already the pressure of managing lines is diminished. And just wait until Alibaba brings its U.S. version of Singles Day to the states on 11/11, pulling additional sales into the first half of the month. But you said it best with “there are products inside worth waiting for.” Aren’t we going to be selling “experience” as much as product in the future? Won’t the experience be worth a little bit of a wait? Black Friday can still be an event, but maybe more fun-driven than deal-driven.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I think the media will focus on long lines for as long as they can get away with it. Photos of shoppers waiting in line to get into a store or to pay are the most recognizable icons of Black Friday.

Black Friday is still a big deal and will be into the future; it’s an event that allows many families to have the holidays they might not otherwise be able to afford. How we shop may change as retailers make it easier for consumers, but it will still be an event many look forward to each year. You only have to look at posts on social media to know that Black Friday isn’t just shopping, it’s a sport.

Jeff Sward
Guest

Sport indeed! I spent 2016 going to the mall 3 times a week … literally. Immersion. I went to the mall Thanksgiving evening at about 9:00. Had to follow an exiting shopper to get a parking space. At 9:30 the mall was jammed. People and families of all ages. By 11:00 families and kids had headed home to bed. From midnight to 2:00 in the morning it seemed to be 97% high schoolers and college kids. It was a social event. Nowhere near the level of shopping bags as in the 10:00 time frame.

How about that … it was an experience. Who knew? I had never been to the mall on Thanksgiving before.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

It’s an experience alright! I can remember leaving home at midnight so Rich and I could visit Walmart’s and Targets and Best Buys to interview shoppers waiting on line for bargains. I’m glad those days are over, that’s for sure.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

LIke so many metrics and KPIs in retail — they need to change. Long lines should not be a metric for success, even with the general media. There are other ways to reflect the business of the season in stores. As Mobile Pay adoption continues to grow (e.g. Apple Pay), the ability to tap and go via a mobile tablet will go a long way to eliminate the lines.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Media is always attracted to the thing which is most visible — which makes the best film and photographs. Lines do that.

What do lines mean? There’s far more sold in the two weeks before Christmas at retail than in the week of Black Friday. So the lines don’t mean a whole lot.

Besides, if we focus on “line length and chaos” any retailer can create that by offering deals that are bad business. It’s a Goodhart’s Law effect, where the “measure” (news coverage) leads to bad management.

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

With more omnichannel shopping, pickup lockers, mobile quick-stop courier pickups, convenience pickup points, mobile checkouts and oh, the old-fashioned straight online shopping, lineups could be a nostalgic experience — soon. Will it be this year? No. But over the next two years, I expect to see changes infusing into the retail landscape.

Yes — long lines are an existential threat to physical retail. As a result, ALL retailers need to think about how to make the brick-and-mortar experience better. Pushing more sales to in-store pickups and its variations is critical. After all, 40 percent to 59 percent of shoppers end up buying more goods (i.e.: impulse buys), when they come in for a pickup.

The tech starts with order management as the intelligence. You will hear of unified commerce, pickup lockers, and cashier free technologies. All these will come too.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

I can imagine that today’s newly born may never experience the same overnight camping ahead of Black Friday so they can give someone their money in exchange for a physical product. The entire experience will become the stuff of lore as we reminisce of a passing age. Never mind that the actual waiting and camping in line was an experience in itself – one worthy of bragging rights and unheard of deals.

Today consumer options and retail competition have made the derived benefit of those shared experiences less attractive as human queues have turned into digital clicks and count-down timers with same-day home deliveries.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

I was just standing in a line in a store the other day thinking, “what am i doing here?” The old online devil on my shoulder kicks in more and more for just about anything now. As slow as consumers have been to completely ditch stores, though, I think it’s going to be a decade or two. But every line adds to the dilemma.

Scan and go is the answer. It’s just not that easy to implement or for adoption rates to skyrocket. So I believe you can look for long lines at Christmas for a while still. Bah Humbug!

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Many technologies are at play to ease the dangers of long lines. Long lines are revenue killers for retailers, not a metric of success, despite what many media reports may yet claim this holiday shopping season. Greater use of mobile POS, and more omnichannel order management to make it easier for customers to order products ahead of their store visit and simply walk in for pickup will go a long way to improve this situation. It doesn’t take the extreme tech of Amazon Go to accomplish this for the mad holiday shopping rush! Target and Walmart are just two examples this season of retailers actively trying to improve the checkout experience. I hope that soon we will see KPIs and metrics showing us where and when shoppers are buying as well as where and when they are picking up vs. using delivery — all of these are viable options to mitigate those long lines! Retailers will not only need to deploy these new technologies but also look at their core infrastructure (data network, back-end servers,… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
There will continue to be stories about long lines, just like there will continue to be stories about some poor soul who gets trampled when a store door opens. It’s media bait. But that’s not the point. According to A.T. Kearney’s recently released 2018 Seasonal Shopping Survey, which polled shoppers about their 2017 shopping experiences and how they would influence their behavior this year, 84 percent of shoppers reported they experienced long lines — the single largest complaint. Forty five percent of shoppers said they planned on doing their Holiday shopping early to avoid lines and — and this is a critical point for retailers — 60 percent of respondents said they would switch their buying to other retailers to avoid the problems they experienced in 2017. Now, while as an academically trained philosopher, I hate to use the business cliche of the year — if the potential loss of 60 percent of your seasonal traffic isn’t an existential crisis for retailers, I’m not sure what one looks like. The solution isn’t just technology, although… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Checkout lines are as much a business process optimization issue as they are a technology challenge. This has been the case for literally decades. Next year will have long lines. And the year after. I don’t see the majority of shoppers taking advantage of line-shortening ideas for years to come. They have just gotten used to it… sadly.

Mark Heckman
BrainTrust

Eliminating the checkout line is one of the most compelling changes to retailing in my lifetime. Unlike many innovations, it presents a win for both retailer (labor) and consumer (time, angst). I am impressed with the progress that retailers are making towards the elimination of lines and the entire checkout process itself, but it will take some time and significant investment. In five years or less, technology and the quick adaption of today’s shoppers will team to streamline payment to an amazing degree. Standing in line will be a thing of the past, unless you are foolish enough to go to a theme park during spring break!

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

It’s always been about lines. That’s what seems to be newsworthy. It’s expected during the holiday season, especially Black Friday, that there will be crowded stores with longer than usual lines. Consumers are getting smarter – and retailers are teaching them. When Amazon, Walmart and Target tell them to shop from home, people will listen. So, my retail friends, be careful what you wish for.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Sooner rather than later. There are a couple of universal retail shopping truths:

  1. The longer you keep customers in the store, the more they will buy;
  2. The quicker you get them out, the quicker they will come back.

Show packed stores to emphasize the fun of the hunt, sans the long checkout lines. Get customers out seamlessly and quickly. Technology and imaginative ways to deal with this issue are already available. Use them both.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

OK, we all agree that long lines have got to go, or at least go faster. But there is a huge point that really hasn’t been made here. Georganne alluded to it as a “sport.” And it is! When I go out on Black Friday and see the traffic in the aisles, I just smile because I hear excited shoppers bragging about deals they FOUND. It is the thrill of the hunt for many; we can never forget that. So some people will sit on the couch and others will go hunting in search of, and being thrilled in finding, more than what they expected. And that is music to retailer’s ears.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
BrainTrust

Waiting to check out is the worst part of shopping. While some shoppers still like the “sport” aspect, smart retailers will optimize staffing and offer consumers alternative ways to pay for and collect goods.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Shoppers will be busy on Black Friday clicking to get those great low priced bargains that offer minimum margin to retailers. However, for the sake of retailers, I hope there will be lines in the stores. Every year that I am out observing Black Friday shoppers in lines, I hear them bragging about the great unexpected deals they found in the store that were not on the net. And that is music in the retailer’s ears. And that creates happy customers who will probably return. The challenge: don’t make them wait too long.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

The holiday news of long lines won’t be going away anytime soon. While retailers have been encouraging consumers earlier every year and the holiday shopping season has been elongated, there is another perpetual dynamic – the nostalgic Black Friday shopping experience. Black Friday early morning shopping has become a tradition for many families and it is a bonding experience that gets them in the holiday spirit.

It is imperative for retailers to continue to focus on ways to make the holiday shopping experience as easy as possible through a combination of technology and staffing. However, they still want to entice customers with special deals that inspire them to wait in long lines before the doors open on Black Friday. Long lines of anticipating customers waiting for doors to open is good and long lines inside the store is bad!

James Tenser
BrainTrust
Immersed as we are in retail’s headlong crusade against all forms of “friction,” I think we tend to overlook a crucial aspect of the holiday selling season: The lines *are* the experience. Images of chilled shoppers queued up and waiting hours for the doors to open make for great (and free) news coverage for the retail industry. Stories that depict the human sea and predict looming product shortages add just enough fear of failure to get turkey-stuffed consumers off the sofa. Mock outrage over the bad behavior of the over-zealous few gains even more exposure. The ubiquity of mobile devices ensures that these scenes will be recorded and shared millions of times — a bonanza for brands. But those Black Friday lines are also places where families shiver together, sip cocoa, and plot deal strategies. Strangers may compare notes or share a few jokes. Then the doors open, and the games begin. Yes, some of us may prefer to avoid the pandemonium, watch the clips on YouTube, and order most of our gifts online. Black… Read more »
Bill Friend
Guest

Shopping is still a contact sport for many, so the lines and the coverage will continue for a while, at least another decade or so. What will be interesting is the changeover on how products are delivered to the home. Well before the lines and coverage disappear, many retailers will be moving at least partially to pop-up and showcase locations that will require making arrangements for the products to be shipped. This is one of the last elements of the shopping experience to receive attention from big tech and it’s ripe for the picking.

One more point — mobile POS is on the uptick and that will benefit retailers in the mid-term future.

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Braintrust
"You only have to look at posts on social media to know that Black Friday isn’t just shopping, it’s a sport."
"Eliminating the checkout line is one of the most compelling changes to retailing in my lifetime."
"Long lines of anticipating customers waiting for doors to open is good and long lines inside the store is bad!"

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