What are self-checkout’s pain points?

Photo: @MILLBO via Twenty20
Dec 03, 2021

Self-checkout has been promoted as an answer to retail labor challenges since well before the pandemic, and consumers do find the notion of faster checkout appealing. The customer experience, however, “is still far from perfect,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The primary problem relates to scanning — delays that come from difficult-to-scan items, weighing errors and double-scanning. Consumers also encounter difficulties when applying coupons and paying, and waiting for an attendant to fix issues appears to be a major shopper pet peeve.

The WSJ article offered a number of solutions to improve the self-checkout experience:

  • Employing scan guns to make scanning easier for larger items or multiple items;
  • Providing customers with the ability to remove already-scanned items or providing associates with an app to remotely clear a transaction from their phones;
  • Tapping artificial intelligence to identify produce and other difficult to scan items quicker.
  • Repackaging some items to add barcodes;
  • Offering a discount for using self-checkout to offset the hassles and encourage use by those preferring full-service checkouts.

Shipments of self-checkout machines grew 25 percent in 2020 as retailers sought to automate processes to reduce labor costs and consumers sought out contactless solutions during the pandemic.

According to a survey of 1,000 Americans that came out in February from Raydiant, 36 percent greatly increased their usage of self-service kiosks over the last 12 months and 23 percent increased usage to a minor degree. Sixty percent indicated they prefer self-serve to cashier-assisted checkout.

The self-serve preference was partly attributed to pandemic-related demand for contactless solutions as well as to 85 percent agreeing self-serve tends to be faster. Negatives included efficiency — 67 percent reported a self-service checkout experience had failed for them. Sixty-five percent had concerns about the cleanliness of self-service options. The same 65 percent would prefer to use their smartphone to check out if the option was available.

A survey of about 2,700 U.S. consumers from PYMNTS and Toshiba that came out in September likewise found speed to be the primary motivation to use self-checkout. Shoppers were less likely to use self-serve kiosks when purchasing more than 25 items (60 percent), and when purchasing fresh produce (52 percent).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you believe have been the primary aggravations in using self-serve stations at retail and have any been alleviated over time? What solutions do you see?

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"The use of artificial intelligence to identify produce and other difficult to scan items quicker would be a great improvement for self-checkout ease of use."

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21 Comments on "What are self-checkout’s pain points?"

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Carol Spieckerman

The main pain point is not having store associates at the ready to remedy all of the other pain points. Some retailers do a great job with this but a lack of consistency between locations can be a problem.

David Naumann

Many of the challenges noted in the article and, specifically, items that need to be looked up and weighed are the things that make some consumers avoid self-checkout. The use of artificial intelligence to identify produce and other difficult to scan items quicker would be a great improvement for self-checkout ease of use. Another thing, not mentioned in the article, that is a challenge for efficient self-checkout is ringing up alcohol, as it requires an attendant to check IDs.

Ken Morris
With self-checkout, the elephant in the room is theft. Loss prevention is a big challenge for self-checkout when there’s no security device involved. This will be more and more apparent when stores try to move to the “walk out” model where there’s no checkout at all. Now, anyone who reads my comments can probably predict what I’m going to say next: RFID. No, you can’t tag every apple, because that would add about three cents each. But any retailer can do the math as to which SKUs are worth tagging. But I’m not just talking about the benefits of having a security tag in the form of an RFID chip that’s as thin as a sticker. The LP benefit comes on top of the inventory accuracy and possibly visibility into the item’s location further back in the supply chain. Personally, I’m always feeling rushed at self-checkout. The voice is always telling me to bag or some other command that seems inappropriate. A cashier would never scold a customer like that. It is very weird. At least… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

I’m not sure there is a problem with self-checkout. Some systems seem better than others (CVS – take note) but it’s a choice you, the shopper, make, not one forced on you by the store. I use self-checkout every week at Kroger and Walmart and the only slow-down I ever have is if a.) they are busy and b.) they need to put in a birth date in for restricted purchasing. This is just too simple.

Bob Amster

Space is one paint point — the belts at the manned checkout lanes are capable of staging more items. Waiting for an associate to fix a problem is another. Inability of some customers to follow directions is yet another. Improperly-marked produce was but is being addressed. Last but not least, the customer has to do it all and is, therefore the process is more cumbersome whereas in a manned checkout lane, the customer can load the take-away belt, the cashier scans and weighs, and the customer can bag. It’s faster.

Jeff Sward

Self-checkout at Target and Home Depot is seamless and painless. And typically faster than having to wait in line. Self-checkout at the grocery store is different. It is rare that I do not buy fresh produce, and I never use self-checkout for fresh produce. It is a slow, bumbling process at best. But I always use self-checkout if all I am buying is packaged goods. The process of bar coding or somehow “packaging” fresh produce will take some experimentation to solve.

Lisa Goller

For nearly two decades, I’ve loved self-checkouts. Except when they peeve me off.

Non-compliant barcodes that don’t scan and accidental double scans are the top reasons I’ve needed an associate’s help. That said, barcode reliability has vastly improved in recent years across grocery, mass and pharmacy chains’ self-checkouts.

Adding AI to replace manually entering produce price lookup codes would add convenience and save time. Repackaging some items to add barcodes would also improve the in-store experience.

Jeff Weidauer

There is no single problem with self-checkout – the challenges vary by store and by time of day. My local Kroger only has self-checkout after 8 p.m., so lines tend to back up. This is partly due to no store personnel paying attention to the area. Others are slow, or the bagging area doesn’t recognize when an item is in the bag. A better solution would be a mobile app for small purchases – Sam’s Club actually does a great job with this.

Raj B. Shroff

I think from an overall experience standpoint, queuing at self-checkout has some retailers baffled. Meijer finally evolved their self-checkout to make it at parity with expectations. As for the machines, gone are the days (mostly) of having the machine freeze if you bring your own bag. Alcohol date check is expected for the near-term. If you compare self-checkout to manned checkout, there are hardly any issues. If you compare it to Just Walk Out, the problem with self-checkout is having to use it at all.

Gene Detroyer

Two weeks ago the Whole Foods near me increased their self-checkout from four to 12 stations. It seemed to increase the speed of all lines. They have a separate line for self-checkout and two lines for traditional. Lines that were never lined up less than five people and sometimes as many as 15, seem to average about three people each (my observation).

The discussion correctly identifies all the pain points except one. Shoppers are not yet familiar with the process and freeze when anything goes wrong. Whole Foods has an associate to help with these checkouts. Each experience of help is a learning experience. That alone will improve the speed. But, critical and to be be expected, the solutions that have been identified will be implemented.

For the retailer, the labor shortage is identified as one of the reasons to expand self-checkout. Like so many other things, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of self-checkout.

Rich Kizer

What I have seen as the primary agitation at self-checkouts is the backup and wait as people try to checkout themselves without a modicum of experience, and then the wait for a staff person to arrive and save the day. The tensions surrounding the self service checkout will only ease when the consumer becomes educated on how to use them. I’ve seen some wizards, but more failures. Perhaps (tongue in cheek now), there should be a take home game to practice on? And above all, if we’re going to truly grow this customer function, dedicated staff must be present, quickly!

Gene Detroyer

It seems to me that it wasn’t too long ago that the BrainTrust concluded that self-checkout was not a good alternative for retailers. After reading today’s thoughts by my colleagues, it seems that the opinions have dramatically changed.

Craig Sundstrom

Just shows, Gene, that even experts can learn!

Gary Sankary

The availability of team members to help out when customers run into issues, like UPCs that don’t scan, random weight items, age verification or any number of small issues that can cause frustration or slow people down. Issues, I should point out, cashiers have trouble with as well. Having someone at the ready to help facilitate the customers when they do have problems is key.

10 months 2 days ago
There’s a slight nefariousness about making self-checkout a perfect experience. In that making it so benefits businesses greatly, but does start to render staff more and more replaceable—except at times when a worker is needed, herein, to fix issues that customers aren’t able to handle. But that’s for another more apocalyptic discussion? Meanwhile, that—the frequent absence of a staffer who can help with a tech/scan issue—has always appeared, in my experience, to be the major holdup in making this a more streamlined experience. But also, here in San Francisco, where there are certain nuances to shopping, there are unforeseen issues that are lost to those who create these processes in the first place. For example, when one is encouraged to bring your own bag, the system does not allow you to place it where you could easily then drop in your scanned items; making the entire process smoother. (And about bags, isn’t passing out bags a rather lowest-level job? However the alternative of having them there—for customers to take on their own and pay for—seems… Read more »
Harley Feldman

The biggest challenge with getting the right amount to be charged for the item at checkout is the correct product identification. Many bar codes work well, but on some products they are either small or hard to find, distorted by the product, or non-existent. The toughest category is produce, especially when the customer has to scan through pictures of products when the number of variations of products (onions, potatoes, etc.) is large.

Over time, some of these problems have been addressed through better bar code placement and showing popular items on the check out machine screen. The best fix would be automated product recognition where the customer would not to need to enter anything like the Amazon Go stores.

Craig Sundstrom

Waiting for an attendant to fix issues appears to be a major shopper pet peeve. BINGO! (Can’t see how this wasn’t a choice in the poll.) Or really to be more accurate: the tendency for stores to leave the position unattended. The solution would seem to be fairly simple — make sure the store is sufficiently staffed that there is always someone there — but of course this also requires diligence on the part of those assigned the task.

Other than that the issues seems small — better maintenance and a bit of tweaking (some machines can be more temperamental than humans!) … I really don’t see “self-check” as one of the sector’s bigger issues; OTC, I think it’s a good example of a major technological advance rolled out successfully … and quietly.

Shep Hyken

Self-service checkout will continue to grow in popularity. The key to success, at this point, is to always have an associate ready to jump in when there is a problem. My experience and observations are that problems are less frequent.

There seem to be two pain points. The first is around education of the technology. The first time someone uses it is not always easy. Many say it’s an intuitive technology, but for some it’s new tech, and as easy as it is, it still appears daunting. Remedy: An associate ready to jump in and help.

Second pain point is when something won’t scan. Remedy: An associate ready to jump in and help. (Sound familiar?)

Finally two suggestions. First, put multiple scan codes on products – on top, sides, bottom of boxes. This is especially important for cases of beverages or anything else that is heavy.

Second, in addition to the traditional scanner, have a “gun” that can allow heavier items (just mentioned) to be scanned from the cart.

Ananda Chakravarty

Self CheckOut’s (SCO) pain points continue to be less impactful leading to a virtuous cycle for SCO. For the retailer, loss prevention was a primary issue, but this has been reduced with various LP tech and the associate in the store. Store format needs, even scanning capabilities continue to improve. Still consumers would prefer to use a cashier+bagger or two when handling a large number of items especially grocery.

What’s happening is a conversion to the type of convenience customers need-someone managing my products to bag them and walk them to the car vs speedily exiting with the one or two items I need with no bags.

Retailer cost savings will be realized per SCO in the form of not just labor but uptime, availability, and accuracy. Watch for AI in camera and id tech. If we can identify individual heads and faces, cabbage heads vs lettuce heads will be a breeze.

Cathy Hotka

I’ll offer another pet peeve — self-checkout terminals that are too close together and the need for customers to constantly apologize to each other while trying to reach them. Paco Underhill pointed out that customers hate being “brushed” by others … can’t we have more space?

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

While self checkout has grown based on the reasons noted in the article, there are still too many areas where customers are asked to compromise: small staging area, cumbersome entry of coupons, difficulty in scanning some items and weighing others, and slow response to self-checkout problems.

Retailers introduced self checkout for cost saving reasons. Customers engaged in self checkout because of their desire to control the checkout process. All of the noted customer compromises can be corrected if the goal is customer delight vs cost savings.

"The use of artificial intelligence to identify produce and other difficult to scan items quicker would be a great improvement for self-checkout ease of use."

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