Have grocery self-checkouts been designed to disappoint?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Nov 03, 2022

In recent months we have read Wegmans announce that it is pulling its self-checkout technology because of concerns over theft; Tesco is facing customer displeasure with its self-checkouts; Albertsons is redeploying self-checkout after an eight-year hiatus; Kroger added Everseen’s Visual AI to its self-checkout POS; and Walmart wants to eventually have all cashier-less stores. The direction of self-checkout is varied.

Self-checkout POS systems differ but few (if any) are frictionless, although scanning of produce has improved. How/where the customer accumulates the purchases is important in assuring a smoother flow. Wanting to be environmentally responsible, many consumers bring their own shopping bags, but most bags are not designed to fit or stand properly on the scale side of the checkout, causing yet more friction.

Few, if any, of the transactions I’ve witnessed on a wide array of systems have been frictionless with each having an interruption of some form.

Generally, supermarket retailers require that there be one associate dedicated to assisting customers at self-checkout stations in every store. Large and heavy items, which cannot be scanned on a fixed, flatbed scanner, present a challenge that the associate — equipped with a wireless hand-held scanner — must deal with. Not smooth. The questions then become: What is the total throughput of items per hour in a self-checkout station versus a manned checkout lane? Should retailers care about this performance indicator? Do they care?

The relative practical experience of the average consumer versus a dedicated cashier is two orders of magnitude. (How many times do consumers shop at a supermarket per week and how many transactions per day does a dedicated cashier process?)

Consumers’ feelings about and reasons for using self-checkout vary. Some do not want to wait in (any) line. Others do not want to deal with a cashier or believe they can check themselves out more quickly.

We should consider that younger generations take to technology with ease and with curiosity. Older consumers are more skeptical about using technology if there is no immediate support available. For this latter cohort in particular, their experience must be flawless to assure future use.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Where does grocery self-checkout currently fall short?  What will need to happen for most consumers to prefer using self-checkouts rather than those staffed by cashiers?

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Braintrust
"Consumer preference is clear: there is a need for both self-scan type systems and manned checkouts. It is not either/or."

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35 Comments on "Have grocery self-checkouts been designed to disappoint?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

There is a big difference between “scan as you shop” type systems – which is what Wegmans used and what, for the most part, Tesco employs – and “self-scanning” registers which is what Target uses. The latter have a lot of friction as consumers have to unload and scan and repack products which is challenging when they have a lot of goods. The former do save time and are relatively easy to use once consumers get the hang of them. The problem is they are more open to theft and fraud which causes losses for retailers. All that said, consumer preference is clear: there is a need for both self-scan type systems and manned checkouts. It is not either/or.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I agree. Retailers know there are customers that prefer one checkout system over another and it may depend on the types and number of items the customer has.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Self-checkout technology has been around for 30+ years, and it’s still not close to fool-proof. It’s perplexing. After all these decades of development, refinement and market demand for self-checkout, you would think there would be many excellent solutions, but yet the experience is still fraught for many consumers. Self-checkout is terrific when it works and a total pain when it doesn’t. Technology providers need to create simpler, more effective solutions.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Excellent points Mark. It seems like self-checkout should be more simple and efficient than it is. While scan-and-go technology has its concerns with theft, it seems like this should be more feasible. Maybe with some random audits or a verifier at the exit to scan digital receipts it should be able to minimize the risk of theft.

Peter_McCall
Guest

Hard to fix what you can’t measure, as Mark will attest to. Only capturing POS data provides the Ops/CX teams a limited point of view. How many people join the line, then abandon? How many get to the terminal then abandon because the UI/UX adds more friction? How many frustrated shoppers use it 1x then never again due? Overall store traffic, queue lengths, dwell times, abandonment rates and CX scores are some other data points to be considered when evaluating how to refine the experience.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Self-checkout is only designed as a way to cut costs. That’s why it will never go away. Anybody who believes that it is better for shoppers is mistaken.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

At my local Whole Foods, with 12 self-checkouts, people always wait to use them and they are always full. It seems many shoppers believe self-checkout is better for them. At Home Depot, people use self-checkout even when there are empty manned lanes.

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

The answer to the second question is “be faster than staffed cashier lanes.”

While I realize that not every consumer is overly concerned about time, it is the core factor that most consumers weigh when walking to the front of the store and deciding whether to pursue self-checkout or a cashier-manned lane. If it’s clear they are faster, a little friction will be accepted.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Grocery self-checkout is a dream — when it’s smooth. Retailers need all barcodes to scan properly, an intuitive interface and enough checkouts open at one time to ensure speed.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Yes, for me it is generally faster and smoother!

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

The checkout experience is the last point of contact a store has with a customer, and the one shoppers remember most clearly the next time they decide where to buy. Instead of using automated checkouts as a replacement for cashiers, retailers consider it a way to augment the ability of a cashier to help shoppers have a better experience. Costco is a great example because they have staff at almost every self-checkout. Lines move quickly, shoppers don’t feel burdened or have to lift heavy items, and the staff have more time to engage with the customer while they check out.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Some products just don’t lend themselves to easy ticketing/labeling with pricing and bar codes. Like the whole universe of fresh produce. A shopping trip that does not include fresh produce can roll through self-checkout quite easily. A trip that includes fresh produce can be a nightmare at self-checkout. It’s the nature of the product creating the friction, not an aversion to technology. Home Depot is a great example. Inside the store it’s pretty much 100 percent self-checkout. Out in the garden center it’s 100 percent cashier. The nature of the product allows self-checkout inside but demands the cashier outside. Customers that get frustrated by taking fresh produce through self-checkout are creating their own frustration and friction. Going through the line with a cashier might cost a minute or two.

David Spear
BrainTrust

Self-scanning apps can be very useful, especially for digital natives who have grown up surrounded by tech. Self-checkout, on the other hand, can be fraught with friction, from limited bagging room to ID verification for alcohol purchases (wait time for associate can be very long, which defeats the whole concept of speed) to long lines for self-checkout (since the retailer cut back on staffing at cashier-attended lanes) to scanning problems for certain barcodes to add-on questions that ask if you want to donate to select charities (which, again, defeats the concept of speed). Incremental enhancements have certainly been made to self-checkout software and pod hardware, but it’s a ripe area for disruption.

Mark Self
BrainTrust

The original business case in the ’90s was built on a “four-to-one” reduction — one associate overseeing four lanes instead of four lanes with four cashiers.

Thirty years has brought a lot of improvement to the technology and, linked with consumers being more and more “used” to self service, the trend will follow the demographics. As shoppers in the 55-and-up age group pass away, the demand for cashiers will drop.

Not completely however — because self checkout is simply not able to handle larger basket sizes — it can of course but it is a tedious process. Streamline the scanning and the payment (two pretty big hurdles) and you might be able to say “hello cashier-free store environment.”

But that is a long way from today.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
BrainTrust

Self-checkout is here to stay. No customer in their right mind will take a full cart with 50 items through a self-checkout, but those with a few that want to avoid checkout queues will opt for them. More sensors and AI will be added and integrated to limit shrink and improve item recognition and processing speed. Consumers have come to expect both cashier and cashier-less lines; they love to have choices.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I agree. Very few changes have been made over the 30+ years self-checkout has been available. There still remains a loss prevention issue that will always be present. Retailers like H‑E‑B are testing self-checkouts with 360 degree scanners that scan the entire order.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Retailers like H‑E‑B are testing self-checkouts with 360-degree scanners that scan the entire order. Really cool!

Scott Norris
Guest

We’ve been seeing fuller carts going into the self-check corral at our local Target – and long wait lines as a result. So sometimes it is actually faster to check out at a traditional station – planners need to account for folks using tools in ways that weren’t intended. (Probably the same customers who pull into a drive-through lane and order for six people with complicated requests.)

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

Self-checkout falls short in setting expectations. If the shopper expects it to be quick and easy, it has to be quick and easy. If you want it to appear that customers are not waiting in lines, add more self-scanners when you see them regularly fill up (both my Kroger and my Walmart have done so). And don’t necessarily assume that produce is a friction point. I always self-scan and I know I’m going to have to add info for produce – it’s just not that big a deal. Maybe shoppers don’t mind the extra few steps for non-scanable items. As an aside, our front-end people are always scanning cases of water or big bags of dog food before we can even ask – they are very much at the ready.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

You must be part of the digital generation.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

My age would suggest not, Gene — but thanks for thinking I’m younger. I just don’t find self-checkout very hard.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I find it more efficient. I have even learned how to scan produce.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Has anyone ever done a demographic study on who prefers self-checkout? It strikes me with improvements in technology and preferences by the digital generation, self-checkout is sure to be preferred and grow.