Retail Customer Experience: Self-checkout and alcohol – a dangerous mix?

Jul 21, 2009

By Caroline
Cooper, Contributing Editor

a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary
of a current article from Retail
Customer Experience
a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the
shopping experience.

machines have been a mainstay in America’s grocery stores and supermarkets
for some time, but there is growing concern that some shoppers may take
advantage of the technology to illegally purchase alcohol.

A study published
in June by a UCLA Law School clinic and the advocacy group Los Angeles
Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE, has highlighted that very issue.

According to
the research, in two-thirds of their visits to specific grocery chains,
participants saw only one employee working at the self-checkout area,
and in five instances, they saw no self-checkout attendant at all. Additionally,
though it is the industry standard for clerks to check the ID of anyone
who appears under the age of 30, one-third of the participants reported
that they were not asked for their ID, and only one participant was ever
asked to give her date of birth.

“In combination,” the study said, “low numbers of employees supervising self-checkout
machines, obstructed views and long wait times enhance the risk of error
in monitoring alcohol purchases and may make it easier for customers to purchase
alcohol illegally, either through deception or theft.”

The study’s results also indicate that in eight instances, the self-checkout
system didn’t lock when alcohol was scanned, and that in 11 cases, participants
were able to “override” the system, either by scanning another item, swiping
a credit card or both. In total, the study says participants were able to
override a locked self-checkout machine or bypass the employee-override process
19 times out of 97, or in 20 percent of the visits.

While the study
attributes a great deal of the problem to a lack of employee oversight,
it also very clearly places blame on the technology itself, and some
in the self-service industry aren’t sure that’s fair.

NCR recently
issued a statement saying that human error was the more likely cause
of the self-checkout breakdowns, not the machines themselves.

“NCR’s experience
is that retailers should and do consistently monitor to ensure that the
correct procedures are in place and that staff are applying them correctly
and consistently,” the statement said. “However, it is also very important
to understand that the LAANE study incorrectly describes how NCR self-checkout
works and therefore its conclusions regarding self-checkout are likewise

a bill was recently introduced in California that would require the sale
of alcohol to be routed only through a traditional checkout lane.

“This is just
my opinion, but I think that’s a shame,” said Kenneth Duffy, IBM’s kiosk
offering marketing manager, when he learned of the proposed legislation. “I
think, really, all it takes is a little bit of time and resources to
train the employees to make sure that they recognize that this is a big

Discussion Questions:
Are there serious challenges to self-checkout systems involving the
sale of alcohol and other age-limit items? Does this limit the technology’s
potential? What basic procedures might have to be added to prevent
such sales?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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11 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: Self-checkout and alcohol – a dangerous mix?"

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Max Goldberg
12 years 10 months ago

Retailers need to do a better job of monitoring the purchase of alcohol through self checkout lanes, otherwise teenagers will have to go back to using their fake IDs at the check stands. Being a Californian, I was glad to see the state legislature tackle this critical issue, rather than focusing on the silly details of righting the state’s budget mess.

Anne Howe
12 years 10 months ago

While human training should be the solution and shoppers should be able to use self check out at their discretion, my personal bias overrides business logic on this issue. When over-rides to the system can be documented 20% of the time, that is too much risk to health and human safety.

Who bears the risk? Imagine any scenario where an underage drunk driver kills someone, and someone presents evidence that a retailer’s POS system to prevent alcohol sales to minors has a 20% fail rate?

No retailer should have to wait for regulation on this issue. What if our pedophile jails system had a 20% failure rate on the locks? Would that be okay too?

Doron Levy
Doron Levy
12 years 10 months ago

If I were a Transformer, the shelf checkout machine would be my enemy. SelfCheckOutagon would be my nemisis! I hate these things and this article makes a good point. Here in Ontario, all that bad stuff is heavily regulated so there is no opportunity for a self checkout problem. But in the rest of the world, I could see this being a huge problem. I’ve started paying attention to the supervisors that Home Depot, Lowe’s, Loblaws and Walmart put up at the self checkouts and it looks like it has become the position for the person with the least amount of customer service skill or enthusiasm which should work out well for retailers who sell alcohol and tobacco.

My hatred for self checkouts aside, retailers need to remember that self checkout doesn’t mean ‘I can put a breathing corpse up at the podium to help when the system jams’. For retailers selling vices in a self-serve format, you need your cop up there.

Mel Kleiman
12 years 10 months ago

Big government, in its desire to protect all of us will wake up one morning and say self checkout is not working to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors so we will put more regulations in place to stop it. Or even better, we will make sure that the penalty for selling alcohol to minors is so high that the government can make lots of money from fines. A new kind of speed trap.

Mike Coughlin
Mike Coughlin
12 years 10 months ago
As a mid-20s male, I like the fact that I can run in for a six pack after work on Friday, jump in the self-checkout, and be on my way in a fraction of the time as a traditional checkout. I don’t want to have to wait in line for another 10 minutes at the end of my long work week. That being said, I know that I get carded less at the self-checkout than at a traditional checkout (hardly ever vs. nearly always). So, in my own experience, this study seems to have some merit. The clerks can’t pretend they’re looking the other way because the machines require approval of an alcohol sale. But if the machines are malfunctioning or the self-checkout supervisor is inept, this is a problem for the retailer–not the state legislature. They should get the machines fixed or retrain employees on how to operate them, and if the self-checkout clerk is purposely not checking IDs, that’s the same problem as a traditional checkout cashier not checking an ID. Existing legislature… Read more »
Jesse Rooney
Jesse Rooney
12 years 10 months ago

Take one part grocery alcohol sales, mix with an equal amount of self-checkout, garnish with a lack of employee oversight or training and you have a recipe for a disastrous cocktail. Selling alcohol via self-checkout is an absurd practice that should be immediately stopped. Failure to do so will result in more drunk driving accidents and deaths, deaths for which the retailers who sell alcohol via self-checkout systems should be held responsible.

Self-checkout may be a craze that’s here to stay, but the industry needs to get a handle on the problems, and liabilities, self-checkout creates. A 20% failure rate for the point of sale system on alcohol also raises serious questions about shrinkage as well.

Roger Saunders
12 years 10 months ago

Save us from the “thought police” and those who would monitor every aspect of our lives.

The self-checkout application offers consumers convenience, time-savings, and simplicity. Stores that have them, from my visits about the country, are well-staffed and efficient.

Local and State governments have far more important things on which to focus their time–like how to fund their pensions, keep the roads working, tackle the garbage, control their costs and rising taxes, etc.

Bernice Hurst
12 years 10 months ago

Pithy saying of the week–Unintended consequences eventually reveal themselves to be *****ing obvious. BUT just because it CAN be done doesn’t necessarily mean that it IS BEING done. Nothing like accusing the innocent and expecting the worst from young people. For those who are not innocent, is telling them not to use the self-checkout lane really going to stop them? Or, back to unintended consequences, might it not just point the potentially dishonest in a more convenient direction?

Might be better to get rid of self-checkout altogether no matter how many people like it because a few people maybe possibly might occasionally abuse the system. Or perhaps do as Costco does and search every trolley before it leaves the premises.

Kristen Kehn
Kristen Kehn
12 years 10 months ago

Self checkouts and alcohol will lead to more drunk driving accidents and deaths? Really??? I was always under the impression that irresponsible people who made the choice to drive a car after drinking were to blame. Silly me.

I’m wondering what the rationale is behind that statement? Is it because minors may have easier access to alcohol with self checkouts? Or do you think that speedy checkouts will lead to speedy consumption?

Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson
12 years 10 months ago

The ability to sometimes use self-checkouts to circumvent product age-restrictions is a serious issue. But one that can be fixed if merchants and tech providers do their part.

No merchant wants more oversight, so retailers need to get in front of this issue by educating their staff on the proper procedures regarding age-restricted products and then reinforcing that education. Do nothing and more states will offer up legislation and more shoppers will be inconvenienced at checkout. As for the number of associates working self-checkout, one associate should obviously be on duty during busy dayparts. That associate should keep watch for age-restricted product to ensure none gets by without age verification.

Tech providers meanwhile need to ensure their terminals function properly. If the terminal is supposed to lock until age verification is provided, then it should lock–no exceptions. Self-checkouts are a part of this industry. There’s no going back to the days of yore. If there are incidents where terminals are allowing age-restricted product to be purchased without verification, then that terminal needs fixing.

Jayne Keedy
Jayne Keedy
12 years 10 months ago
Self-checkout and alcohol is, indeed, a dangerous mix. As the president of a company that has conducted thousands of alcohol carding compliance mystery shops, I have seen the downside of technology and poor employee training. Like others who have commented, I have noticed that the person assigned to oversee the self-checkout lines is often ‘missing in action’ either physically or mentally. And I have had companies demonstrate their ‘perfect’ technology intended to reduce errors in carding compliance only to see it fail once in place. Nothing prevents under-age alcohol sales better that high-standard employee training and follow-up by human shoppers to test that employees are demonstrating and upholding company and regulatory policies. Too often, however, companies will purchase equipment thinking it can replace human oversight and forget that, like most technological whiz toys, their new technology will have a glitch and not work as intended. When one considers the costs involved in fines, the costs of suspension of the sales of alcohol, the costs of insurance and liability for subsequent negative events due to under-age… Read more »

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