Self-Checkout: Readers Respond

Retailers, wholesalers and vendors share their thoughts on the value of self-checkout machines.

In the wake of large chains such as Albertsons LLC and Big Y recently deciding to eliminate self-checkout units from their operations, there has been much discussion about the value of such technology in terms of customer service.

Indeed, self-checkout has been getting a bad rap these days. Never mind that over the past few months, there have been more installations of the systems than there have been removals, and a recent survey by Mississauga, Ontario-based Empathica Inc. showed self-checkouts ranked as the No. 1 technology that enhances consumers' overall shopping experience.

To help build on this discussion, Progressive Grocer asked its readers to join in with their views of self-checkout. Here's what they said:

Finance Manager, National Grocery Chain: “After a workday of looking at a PC machines, listening to an automated call service and pumping my own gas, I would like some personal interaction and customer service. Is retailing just a business transaction or a business transaction built upon trust and loyalty? Self-check can be efficient if transactions are few and simple … but is the trade-off worth missing another human interaction possibility? Today's business of right-sizing and lean environment misses the point that great customer service is key to bringing you back to that store or business. By continually cutting personnel and replacing them with machines, you lose that human interaction that we look for; we humans are not machines — we have bad days, we get ill, we have relationship problems, financial problems. A machine cannot fix or temporarily alleviate those problems, but a helpful checkout clerk or store employee can leave a positive lasting impression with simple assistance or a friendly smile to bring you back to that store and make your day not seem so bad. Can a machine do that?”

Midwest POS Vendor: “In your newsletter, you wrote, 'Me, I'm a big believer in choice, and that the customers should dictate exactly how they shop your stores.' This assumes that the retailer will continue to provide full-service checkouts for those of us who prefer the personal touch at the end of our shopping experience. In my rural market, I have found that those retailers who have experimented with self-checkouts reduce their support for the alternative to encourage shoppers to 'do it yourself.' I have seen lines form at the manned checkouts at a local Walmart as clerks try to coax shoppers to these self-checkouts, and I am sure in your eyes, the lemmings just stand and wait to have a real person process their order.”

Community-based Independent: “Simple explanation about those checkouts that are successful and those that are not: 'It's the Indian, not the arrow.' The only thing that causes success or failure is people, not technology.”

Midwest Wholesaler: “I work for [a wholesaler] and purchase equipment for independent retailers. We have several owners that have had great success with self-checkouts. Typically, this has been for the larger-size stores and is considered an extra service to the customer, and not a replacement.

“I have to question why Albertsons is committed to removing lanes as a way to say they are going to provide better service, or because of maintenance cost on keeping all lanes in operation. There is not much that goes wrong with a standard checkout, belts, scanner, etc.

“Lately, I have had a few of my smaller-store owners consider selfcheckouts, but they typically back out because of upfront cost. Again, it's an addition to store operations, and not a replacement.

“A good example of bad service with self-checkouts is going to Home Depot, and they have regular checkouts and self-checkouts, but they only have self-checkouts running, forcing customers to have no options.”

POS Technology Vendor:

“This is a good question. If I were a major chain, with stores in the 40,000-square-foot-and-over range, I would leave at least two aisles/registers for self-checkout. There are people who like being able to jump through those self-serve checkouts and be on their way out of the store. I think the move that Albertsons is making, removing all of these registers, is extreme, and they will get negative kickback from clients who prefer the convenience. The big operators have plenty of opportunities to boost relationships [via] their clients' shopping experience, simply because of their size, traffic and number of employees. Providing one or two self-checkout bays is simply giving shoppers a nice option.

“The smaller shops should stay as far away from this option as they can. They need to work on elevating the skill sets of their checkout people at their registers to create the best and most engaging last-minute experience with their shoppers they can deliver. They need to personalize their experience with their customer, as much as a Trader Joe's, which is the master of that behavior at this time.”

Self-service Technology Vendor: “I believe in choice so much that I talk it every day.

“'Choice' is a leading driver behind the push for customer self-order solutions for the deli as well. Much like the banking industry, where customer service is a key differentiator, the choice to bank whenever, wherever, however is at the heart of many marketing campaigns.

“Grocery retailers gain when customers have the choice to shop whenever, wherever and however they want.

“My company helps grocery retailers let their customers dictate exactly how they shop for deli items. Whether it's online or smartphone ordering, iPad Mobile employee-assisted ordering, or traditional freestanding kiosks, we can deliver.”

Buyer, Community-based Independent: “I was a store manager for Safeway/Vons before scanners were even invented, much less self-scanners.

“I retired at age 45 in 1999 after 28 years, and my wife is still a checker at Vons in San Diego. My local Costco installed four self-checkout lanes about a year ago, and as a consumer, I love them. The lines were much shorter, and being a grocery veteran, I am able to scan my own stuff rather quickly.

“Lo and behold, a few weeks ago, I was in my local Costco, and all the self-checkout lanes were gone. When I asked why, I was told there were issues, and that much labor was required to assist customers in the process. My take on that: stupid customers.”

POS Technology Vendor: “I work for a POS company and know [self-checkout is] not on the way out. Look at the source of the grocery store eliminating their self-checkout systems. Have you personally ever shopped at Albertsons and used their self-checkout? It's ridiculous! Their machines are so small, not to mention half of the items that you scan don't work on their scanners. They do not have an efficient self-checkout model which works well for their stores, so I understand why they are taking self-checkout out. They failed to grasp the concept of efficiency and ease for the customer. When you go cheap on the checkout system model and choose the most non-logical layout, of course it will fail. I guarantee if they were to change the layout/ general design of the self-checkout systems (not to mention maintaining their scanner/scales), they might see better results. It is also said that your best cashier should be manning the self-checkout because they are really manning four stations, not one.”

Midwest Independent Retailer: “Staffed checkout lanes create jobs! They are even great loss prevention functions (which help offset the extra costs in employee hours). I also enjoy a little conversation while I am heading out of the store.”

What it comes down to is that it's not so much an issue with self-checkout technology per se, as it is with the operator of this technology. Retailers must know what they are getting into when planning to install self-checkout technology. It involves much more than simply bolting in the units and flipping a switch. As customer-facing technology, it experiences more wear and tear than regular checkouts; regular maintenance is important, as well as regular scale collaboration. It must be integrated into existing systems and loyalty programs, and if you plan to run four of them, you're looking at one additional full-time employee.

Many of the issues retailers have with self-checkout technology stem from the fact that they do not seriously commit to all of the above, and then are surprised they don't work.

Remember the old saying about technology, which can be applied to self-checkout operations as well: Garbage in, garbage out. PG

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