What Will It Take to Create a Better Checkout Experience?

Discussion
Sep 25, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion, is a summary of a current article from the Platt Retail Institute’s Journal of Retail Analytics.

Thanks to bar code scanners, self-checkout, pay-at-the-pump and smarter, faster POS systems, it’s likely we are spending less time in lines than we did decades ago. So why is there a near-universal perception that we now spend more time waiting?

We attribute this perception, at least in part, to our personal technology and the instant gratification it provides.

The optimal point-of-wait solution should:

1. Occur in-process, rather than pre- or post-process. Ideally, your customer should first be acknowledged and allowed to "get started" and make some progress in the path to purchase. Delays around pre-process (not being acknowledged) or post-process (payment hold up) are not tolerated as much. To make in-process waiting a better experience, many Toyota service centers provide movie theaters, children’s play zones, massage therapy stations, private Wi-Fi areas, and free snacks.

2. Prime the customer for waiting. Prepare your customers for waiting and manage their expectations of the wait. Disney has signs indicating expected wait times for attractions, and even strives to achieve a shorter wait than posted to provide a pleasant surprise.

3. Engage emotions that are motivating for the customer. Make the diversion irresistible by stimulating emotional buttons that your customers will likely respond to and find pleasant. At Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers Chocolate’s retail store, customers distract themselves from the reality of long lines by watching raw ingredients being transformed into chocolate.

4. Reward the customer for participating. The customer should get something out of the diversion itself. A reward can be concrete or have monetary value, like a prize or coupon, or intangible, such as a satisfying end to suspense. Movie theater chains such as AMC engage viewers before show time by displaying cinema trivia questions on screen in between promotional messages, with the answer revealed later.

5. Be social. Waiting alone in a line of strangers feels like it takes longer. Social media is one way to eliminate solitary waiting. Major League Baseball teams could easily use Foursquare, Facebook or Twitter to engage fans queuing at ticket counters and refreshment stands.

6. Maximize the value of waiting. A great point-of-wait diversion can’t make up for an inferior product or disappointing service. How does Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown Cupcake reward customers for standing outside with strangers for up to an hour to buy a $4.00 cupcake? As one customer raved: "One hour in line, two seconds in heaven!"

What are some tried-and-true as well as unorthodox methods you see retailers using to manage perceptions around wait times? What schemes could stores borrow from entertainment or other service sectors in dealing with wait times?

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24 Comments on "What Will It Take to Create a Better Checkout Experience?"


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Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
8 years 7 months ago

The real answer here is to improve service levels and scheduling so that the customer doesn’t have to wait, and the retailer doesn’t have to worry about entertaining them while they wait. Wouldn’t it be easier to just fix the real problem? In nearly six years of shopping at Publix, I have never had to wait more than 5 minutes, and often don’t wait even a minute. They manage their business well, staff properly, and keep their customers happy and loyal. If they can do it selling low-margin groceries, can’t other retailers figure it out, too?

David Livingston
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

If you are a store and you are having people wait more than two or three minutes to get checked out, I think the priority would be to get them checked out faster rather than engage them with some kind of entertainment.

I rarely have encountered a long wait at any retailer. Long waits should only be for Disney World, a really good restaurant, the airport security line in prime times, and at US Customs entry ports. For most of my clients, their tried and true method is to open more checkout registers and man them with employees who are quick on their feet. Prime, engage, be social, reward, etc, that just will never be good enough to replace the snappy fast cashier.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Instead of developing techniques for minimizing the impact of waiting, why don’t supermarkets simply eliminate the wait. While Disney uses signs to indicate wait times, it also instituted no waiting by introducing the Fast Pass. With the use of technology like shopper or continuity of purchase cards (I am not a fan of calling these cards loyalty cards, for reasons left to another discussion), shopper spending habits, including average time in the store, could be calculated and customers could be directed to the equivalent of a Fast Pass checkout with little or no wait. Also, self scan of products with purchases tied to a debit or credit card could totally eliminate wait times.

The technology is available. What is needed is the desire to delight our customers. How? Eliminate wait times. No one likes to wait!

Dick Seesel
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

No amount of Disney-style entertainment or new barcode technology is a substitute for having enough checkout lanes open in the first place. Hoping that faster checkout processes are an excuse for poor scheduling is not a strategy.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Transparency is a retailer’s friend.

Whole Foods’ checkout process eliminates the possibility that customers will get frustrated and kick themselves for choosing the “wrong line” because there’s only one line. Customers are more likely to put up with waiting if they perceive their time in line as fair.

That said, we are used to instant gratification. Kudos to Nordstrom and others for empowering customers to stop identified sales associates for instant checkout. Shoppers love being able to purchase a shirt in 15 seconds.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

One other thought, to Al’s point: nothing roils a grocery shopper cooling her heels fifth in line MORE than noticing that there are 8 checkout stands, but only two are manned….

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
8 years 7 months ago
The article certainly makes some interesting points. It is not clear if these are based on empirical research or just observations. We have done research with thousands of shoppers at checkouts in Grocery, Drug, Mass, Convenience and other formats. The shopper experience at checkout can be viewed in terms of wait time, ease of transaction and service provided. To a great extent, wait time is a matter of perception, not reality. The shopper needs to be entertained while in line or else the time spent seems like an eternity. Studies of queuing systems show promise to help wait times. Transactions have been significantly improved and mobile has the capacity to provide further reductions in time and complexity. Services such as bagging or carryout can help offset the poor experience of waiting. The net is that the checkout in many stores is an experience that has not really taken advantage of the technology available today. While mobile is broadly understood by shoppers, most have not adopted it. More empirical research is needed to really understand what… Read more »
Tom Redd
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Coming from the early days of POS (1980 – NCR) the studies done both back then and today say the same thing – there is no science behind impatient shoppers. Get them through the process as fast as possible. In most of our retail environments, there is no “wait 1 minute, live 2 seconds in heaven”…that calculates to 62 seconds – even a longer wait.

The issue for retailers is not some magic associate roaming with mobile checkout, it is about putting their best checkout people in the right place at the right time. Keep training the slower players and get the pros in place. People are the solution to this problem – nice people that know how to talk, work, and move shoppers.

Last, as the web speeds up and online shopping gets faster, the in-store shopper will expect more speed in the store.

So train better, position the fast people in the right lanes, and get the shopper to spend with a smile.

Tom…speedy guy

David Zahn
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

I am with Cathy on this one – make it easier, reduce my time by allowing ANYONE to check me out, and staff appropriately. Sure, it is easier said than done…but that is what a shopper wants/expects.

Stew Leonard’s has televisions and bells/buzzers going off to distract from longer wait times – and it seems to “feel” like it is a shorter time than it really is, however, the best solution is to eliminate it by getting the shopper in and out faster, for real.

Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
8 years 7 months ago

Like David, I don’t encounter long lines at the retail stores I regularly shop. They do a great job in this respect. I wouldn’t say the same about my experience in the drug channel. I seem to always be number 8 in line with just one associate on the checkout. Even in some of the refreshed stores the checkout experience is bad. Maybe a combination of more self-checkout and greater use of technology to minimize shrink might be an option.

I look forward to the day where thanks to the “internet of things,” the products I pick up associate themselves with my card and make the payment happen seamlessly.

Mark Burr
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Checkout is about taking the customer’s money that they have made the decision to spend with you. It isn’t necessarily about entertainment or other schemes. What it is about is making the last best impression with the checkout experience so that they continue to make that decision over and over again.

See what Kroger has done here. Twenty-six seconds is about as speedy as it gets. The results? Check out their same store sales continuum. According to Progressive Grocer, “38 consecutive quarters of same store sales carries into 2013.”

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Kathy hit it right on the head. Why should we wait when staff in the stores are available to ease the lines?

Kenneth Leung
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Wait time is a matter of perception. If all checkouts are running and there is a line, people are more willing to wait then if they see unmanned checkouts. The use of mobile checkout helps break up that pattern of logjam on the front end, but you are limited by the staff and physical space.

In the end, it is about setting expectations of customer service and exceeding it to minimize the negative customer experience. The combination of distractions and information during the checkout process while minimizing the wait is all retailers can do. Video screens, handing out samples during the wait (see that in restaurants with long wait time) and have the item available for purchase at checkout are some of the methods that can be used.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

One of the best ways to improve a checkout experience that always gets loads of positive feedback from consumers is having enough trained and pleasant cashiers. Nothing really works better than that.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

My own (limited sample size) experience is that the worst lines I regularly experience are at …well, let’s just say it’s a store where the staff wears Polynesian attire, and since this store receives nothing but praise, I’m hesitant to believe that wait times are really much of an issue; or perhaps I should say that people don’t really care if the overall shopping experience is positive.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

First of all, I really dislike TV screens in the checkout lines. Having those present simply translates into the retailer acknowledging that I’m going to be there a while. All of these tips in the article address the symptoms and not the overall problem. The problem is the checkout process. There are successful queuing techniques, customer service employee training programs and physical front-end layout designs that ensure swift progression through any checkout line. Mobile POS and other technologies also help this become less of a challenge.

Seriously, though, why is this still an issue in the industry?!

James Tenser
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

In general, planned waiting sends a negative message to shoppers: “Our time is more valuable than yours.”

If shoppers’ wait to pay is so lengthy that you need to concoct some form of distraction to keep them from noticing, then you’ve got a serious service problem.

This is why various forms of checkout TV tried over the years were destined for epic failure. After a few visits, the shopper becomes aware of the manipulation and resentment builds.

Better to focus on operational excellence in fast-turning retail categories, and on highly enabled associates in higher-serviced categories. The former saves shoppers’ time and shows they are respected and valued.

The latter makes the service encounter into an experience worth repeating. Think about the pleasant anticipation of watching the clerk at Zabars slicing your lox paper-thin.

A window into the chocolate molding room may elicit some pleasant feelings the first time it’s viewed, but the novelty can fade pretty quickly. Be appropriate about such theater – many of us don’t want to witness how the sausages get made.

Brian Numainville
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Have to agree – eliminating the wait is far better than creating something artificial to try to negate it!

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

I’ve written recently on how some supermarkets are experimenting with single queue, bank-style checkouts for quick trippers – 1/2 of the shoppers. (“A more convenient supermarket”) But I do expect that checkout “as we know it” will largely disappear in the next 10 years, as smartphones bring pay-as-you-shop to the shopping floor.

Perry Kuklin
Guest
Perry Kuklin
8 years 7 months ago
Al is correct in suggesting that retailers address service and staffing issues as a first step in combating excessive wait times. Proper staffing is key, and queue management technologies such as video analytics can certainly help in pinpointing weaknesses, maximizing efficiencies, and predicting staff allocation for the checkout or service desk. However, even the best-managed retail operation can face longer wait-times at certain times of the day, month, or year. The author is right in suggesting that digital signage and in-line merchandising reduce perceived wait time by keeping customers distracted even a short 2-minute wait can seem even shorter (better!) with a viable distraction. Mobile checkout systems can enhance the customer experience, however, even these solutions can be overwhelmed by either a sudden surge in customers or a very real lack of available service people. Virtual queue management systems give choice back to the customer, freeing them up to continue to shop, relax, or go someplace else while they wait for service. Systems that offer mobile or internet-based registration-for-service and use sms-based “call-to-service” offer a… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
8 years 7 months ago
During this discussion some have referenced waiting in line at a checkout while other checkouts remain unmanned. That’s the biggest concern among shoppers who are waiting in long lines, right? Most of the time, the role of a plentitude of unopened lanes communicates that, “Oh boy, we are really big and really ready to handle your business. We are PREPARED!” B-b-but, exactly when are all those checkouts used? I’m guessing about ten days a year. Maybe fifteen, give or take. Mostly pre-holiday and pre-hurricane. Those days when all registers are ringing and lines are backed up into the canned goods aisles. And on those days, everybody expects to wait in a line and there are no hard feelings. So, why display all those unmanned checkouts year-round, thus irritating customers? Here’s a possible solution: Pop-up checkouts. These would be barebones checkouts disguised for most of the year as product displays. When in operation and not covered with stuff for sale, they’d be without all of the ancillary product placements that surround regular checkouts (this means you,… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
8 years 7 months ago

Customer assistance and eliminating lines as customers approach the checkstand areas are great possibilities that most retailers don’t address. This keeps these areas clear, free-flowing and stops the “line” mentality!

Marc Vegh
Guest
Marc Vegh
8 years 7 months ago

I have noticed that many companies are trying to cut corners by having the least amount of checkers. This is especially true during the rush hours.

Alexander Rink
Guest
8 years 7 months ago
I would have to agree that not having to have customers wait in line in the first place is probably the best option, although this is not always possible. If there is no other alternative but the line, then engaging customers is the next best option. There have been numerous good ideas submitted. Another way to help manage emotions during long checkout lines (and I am thinking the holiday season, as this is probably the season everyone is thinking about) is to try to make the customers feel like they are already being served or that the checkout process has already begun while they are still in line. For example, an associate could walk down the lines asking if anyone is purchasing a gift card and starting to set it up for them (i.e. writing the amount on the envelope, helping them pick a design for the card, etc.). The associate could also do any sort of pre-checkout administration in line, such as signing the customer up for a loyalty card or newsletter. Furthermore, even… Read more »
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