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Proud To Self-Serve You

It takes a great deal of service to create a great self-service experience.

Some in the industry say that self-service is great customer service, but for that to be true, those tools allowing for self-service must be easy to use and enhance the customer experience.

Nowhere in the store is this more important than the self-checkout. Not only does a negative experience at self-checkout delay a shopper's exit, but it also leaves a negative last impression of the store.

It's this experience at self-checkout that Progressive Grocer sought to evaluate with the latest research from New York-based ICC/Decision Services' (ICC/DS) STRONG study, which aims to put metrics around customer service demonstrated in various departments of the grocery store.

This segment of the study — the third in a six-part series — measured how grocers are performing in the creation of a positive shopper experience at self-checkout.

Throughout 2013, more than 100,000 data points will be collected and analyzed among the nation's top national, regional, independent and specialty grocery chains, covering the various elements of the STRONG study: Suggestive selling, Technology, Rx-cellence, Outstanding customer service, Nutritional and Guide to social media.

A Shaky History

Over the years, PG has covered in detail the evolution of self-checkout units as they pertain to the grocery business. Over the past few years, however, the value of these devices has been called into question as some major retailers began pulling the units out.

In our reporting on the topic, we uncovered some key findings about self-checkouts. Most important was that in general, self-checkouts were universally accepted by consumers, and many preferred using them. When problems did arise, these issues weren't related to the technology per se, but rather came from how the retailers were operating the self-checkouts.

Indeed, retailers running self-checkout units must be committed to their successful operation, which means regular maintenance and upgrades (ensuring that the latest versions of software are running), and that someone is always close at hand to assist users with age verification or errors of one kind or another. The retailers that do this experience high usage rates and high satisfaction with their self-checkouts.

For this study, ICC Decision Services measured the shopping experience around self-checkout by sending more than 200 field reps to the stores of 20 retailers to purchase items using the stores' self-checkout units. The reps evaluated both the functionality of the units and the merchandising around them, and actually measured the response of associates to scans of age-verification products and user errors at the machines.

Of those stores studied, national and regional chains averaged four self-checkout lanes per store, while smaller independents averaged three. None of the specialty stores studied operated self-checkout units (Table 1).

A Helping Hand

By now, most retailers realize that having someone on hand to monitor self-checkout units and be ready to assist with ID checks or user errors is critical. Even if an associate isn't 100 percent dedicated to monitoring self-checkouts, front end configurations in which traditional cashiers work near the self-checkout units, and are within earshot of users, tend to make shoppers feel more comfortable using them.

Of those retailers studied for the report, almost all (95 percent) had an associate available to monitor the self-checkout units, with independent grocers leading the way — even with fewer average self-checkout units per store, more independent grocers (98 percent) had an associate monitoring these units than regional (96 percent) and national (90 percent) chains did.

For the most part, the self-checkout units evaluated for this study provided clear and easy-to-understand instructions (Table 2). While most grocers (87 percent) offered multiple-language functionality on their self-checkout units, national and regional chains as a group were more likely to do so, likely due to their broader market coverage (Table 3).


Grocers have come a long way from the early days of self-checkout merchandising and the bulky, cumbersome merchandising racks that looked like they were added on as an afterthought — mostly because they were. Innovative fixtures and equipment configurations now enable impulse merchandising that's less intrusive and more impactful to the shopper.

Still, some grocers prefer to leave the self-checkout area clear of merchandise so that the shopper can focus on the task of checking out. Sixty-eight percent of grocers studied did offer some type of merchandising around the self-checkout, although a greater number of national chains (79 percent) used them compared with independents and regional grocers, of which only 65 percent and 58 percent merchandised the self-checkout, respectively (Table 4).

User Error

Arguably one of the most critical, yet unevaluated, aspects of self-checkout operations is what happens when a shopper makes an error when using the self-checkout unit, causing it to halt the transaction until a store associate arrives to solve the problem. This can be frustrating for the shopper in two ways. First, it lengthens the transaction time, and second, it can lead to the shopper doubting his or her ability to handle the self-checkout, causing future avoidance of the technology.

Field reps evaluating self-checkouts for this study were required to make an intentional mistake during their self-checkout transactions that would require store assistance. They tracked how much time it took for a store associate to arrive, and whether the associate explained the error, in addition to resolving the problem.

In these areas, the stores studied performed remarkably well: The average wait time for the shopper was 29 seconds, and 90 percent of those associates who resolved the problem also explained the error to the shopper so he or she could avoid repeating the mistake. Independents, however, excelled in this area, as their store associates explained scan errors 95 percent of the time (Table 5).

As a whole, grocers have greatly improved the way in which they manage their self-checkout units from a customer service perspective, and services around the self-checkout experience continually improve, as does the functionality of the technology itself. As the technology continues to develop and additional functions continue to be added — particularly consumer mobile technology — grocers must continue to stay vigilant on that ever-important non-technology component around the self-checkout: the customer experience.

Retailers running self-checkout units must be committed to their successful operation, which means regular maintenance and upgrades, and that someone is always close at hand to assist users.


To ensure the capture of a diverse and representative store sample, New York-based ICC/Decision Services selected five chains within each of the following defined store categories:

National: Food retailers (including mass or discount chains offering food) on a national scale

Regional: Food retailers with stores spanning multiple states, or a select region of the United States

Independent: Smaller-sized chains ranging from a dozen stores to no more than 40 stores

Specialty: Ethnic food stores, natural/organic chains, or extreme-value food retailers

Feedback from the store chains was gathered throughout each of their operating markets, with professional field representatives visiting stores as typical shoppers. Each representative measured the experience through defined questions and scenarios.

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