Nobody likes self-service checkouts. That’s why it’s everywhere

If you’ve come across these annoying checkout warnings, you’re not alone.

“We live in 2022. One would expect self-service checkouts to be spotless. We are not there at all,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director from the Dalhousie University Nova Scotia Agri-Food Analytics Lab, which has researched self-service.

Shoppers are not the only ones who are not satisfied with the self-service checkout. Stores also have problems with this.

Machines are expensive to install, often break down, and can result in customers buying fewer items. Stores also carry more casualties and more shoplifting at self-service checkouts than traditional checkouts with human cashiers.

Despite the headaches, self-checkouts are growing.

According to the latest data from the food industry association FMI, in 2020, 29% of transactions at grocery retailers went through self-service checkouts, compared with 23% a year earlier.

This begs the question: why is this often problematic, unloved technology taking over retail?

Make customers work

introduction of self-checkouts in 1986 was part of a long history of stores outsourcing work from paid employees to unpaid customers, a practice that dates back to Piggly Wiggly — the first self-service supermarket — in the early 1900s.

Instead of clerks behind the counter picking up groceries for customers, Piggly Wiggly allowed customers to roam the aisles, grab items off the shelves, and pay at the checkout. In exchange for doing more work, the model promised lower prices.

Customers at Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service supermarket, 1918

However, self-service checkouts were designed primarily to reduce labor costs in stores. The system reduced checkout costs by as much as 66%, according to a 1988 article in the Miami Herald.

The first modern self-checkout system, patented by the Florida company CheckRobot and installed in several Kroger stores, would be almost unrecognizable to shoppers today.

Shoppers scanned their items and placed them on a conveyor belt. The employee at the other end of the belt was packing groceries. Then the customers took them to the central cash desk for payment.

The technology has been hailed as a “revolution in the supermarket”. Shoppers are “turning into their own grocery sellers as automated checkouts cut long cart lines and reduce staffing costs at markets,” according to a Los Angeles Times article. Review 1987.

But self-service hasn’t revolutionized the grocery store. Many clients refused to do more work in exchange for benefits that were not well understood.

It took a decade for walmart (TDC) to test self-service. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the trend became more widespread in supermarkets, which were looking to cut costs during the 2001 recession and faced stiff competition from new supermarkets and warehouse clubs.
Walmart first tested self-service checkouts in the late 1990s.

“The rationale was based on the economy, not the client,” Charlebois said. “From the beginning, customers hated them.”

A 2003 Nielsen poll found that 52% of shoppers found self-checkouts “ok”, while 16% thought they were “disappointing”. 32% of buyers called them “excellent”.

The mixed reaction has led some grocery chains, including Costco (PRICE)Albertsons and others to remove the self-service checkouts they installed in the mid-2000s.
“Self-checkout lines are becoming clogged as shoppers have to wait for store employees to help resolve barcode, coupon, payment issues and other issues that invariably occur with many transactions,” Big Y grocery chain said in a statement. said in 2011 when he withdrew his cars.

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The shift to self-service checkouts also had unintended consequences for stores.

According to Christopher Andrews, retailers have found that self-checkouts are not self-contained and require regular maintenance and monitoring. sociologist at Drew University and author of The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkout, Supermarkets, and the DIY Economy.
Stores have issues with self-service, including higher levels of theft.

While self-checkouts have eliminated some of the tasks of traditional cashiers, he said, they still needed to be staffed, creating a need for better-paid IT professionals.

The self-service checkout, Andrews added, “doesn’t deliver on anything it promises.”

The biggest headache for store owners is that self-checkouts result in more losses due to errors or theft than traditional cashiers.

“If you had a retail store where 50% of transactions were made through self-checkouts, the losses would be 77% higher than the average,” says Adrian Beck, emeritus professor at the University of Leicester in the UK who studies retail losses.

Customers make honest mistakes and also intentionally steal from self-service checkouts.

Some products have multiple barcodes or barcodes that do not scan properly. Products, including fruit and meat, usually need to be weighed and manually entered into the system using a code. Customers may accidentally enter the wrong code. In other cases, customers will not hear a beep to confirm that the item was scanned correctly.

“Consumers are not very good at scanning reliably,” Beck said. “Why should they be? They are not trained.”

Other customers enjoy weak controls in self-service aisles and have developed technology for theft. Common tactics include not scanning the item, exchanging a cheaper item (bananas) for a more expensive item (steak), scanning fake barcodes attached to their wrists, or properly scanning everything and then walking away without paying.

Stores have tried to limit wastage by tightening self-checkout security features, such as adding weight sensors. But the added anti-theft measures also lead to more nasty “unexpected item in luggage compartment” errors that require the intervention of store employees.

“There is a delicate balance between security and customer convenience,” Beck said.

Self service is here to stay

Despite the many disadvantages of self-service checkouts for shoppers and store owners, this trend is only growing.

walmart (TDC), kroger (KR) as well as Common dollar (DG) run exclusively self-service stores. Costco and Albertsons brought back the self-service checkout after removing it a few years ago. Amazon (AMZN) took this concept a step further by creating Amazon Go checkout-free stores.

It may simply be too late for stores to abandon self-service.

Amazon has developed Go stores without checkouts.  Other retailers are trying to catch on to this trend.

Modern stores cater to customers who believe that self-checkouts are faster than traditional cashiers, although there is little evidence for this. But because customers get the job done rather than waiting in line, the experience can feel faster.

Store owners also saw competitors setting up self-service checkouts and decided they didn’t want to miss the chance.

“This is an arms race. If everyone else is doing it, you look like an idiot if you don’t have them,” said David D’Arezzo, former head of Dollar General, Wegmans and other retailers. “Once you’ve let it out of the bag, it’s pretty hard not to suggest it again.”

Covid-19 has also accelerated the spread of self-service checkouts.

During the pandemic, many customers opted for self-service to avoid close interaction with cashiers and packers. And problems with hiring and retaining workers have forced stores to rely more on cars to get customers to the door.

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