Nobody likes self-checkout. Here’s why it’s everywhere

If you’ve encountered these annoying self-checkout machine alerts, you’re not alone.

“This is 2022. You would expect the self-checkout experience to be flawless. We’re not there at all,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analysis Laboratory at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who has researched self-check.

Customers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the self-checkout experience. Stores also have challenges with that.

The machines are expensive to set up, often break down, and can result in customers buying fewer items. Stores also incur greater losses and more thefts at automated checkouts than at traditional checkout lanes with human tellers.

Despite the headaches, self-checkout is growing.

In 2020, 29% of transactions at food retailers were processed through self-checkout, up from 23% the year before, according to the latest data from the food industry association IMF.

This begs the question: why is this often problematic and disapproved technology taking over retail?

Make clients do the work

The introduction of self-checkout machines in 1986 was part of a long history of stores shifting work from paid employees to unpaid customers, a practice that dates back to Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service supermarket, in the early 20th century. XX.

Instead of employees behind a counter gathering products for customers, Piggly Wiggly allowed shoppers to walk the aisles, pick items off the shelves, and pay at the register. In exchange for more work, the model promised lower prices.

Shoppers at Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service supermarket, in 1918.

However, self-checkout was primarily designed to reduce store labor costs. The system reduced cash costs by up to 66%, according to a 1988 article in the Miami Herald.

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

Customers scanned their items and placed them on a conveyor belt. An employee at the other end of the belt bagged the purchases. Customers then took them to a central checkout area to pay.

The technology was heralded as a “revolution in the supermarket.” Shoppers “become their own supermarket clerks as automated checkout machines shorten those long cart lines and reduce grocery store staffing costs,” the Los Angeles Times said in a 1987 review.

But self-checkout didn’t revolutionize the grocery store. Many customers balked at having to do more work for benefits that weren’t entirely clear.

It took a decade to walmart (WMT) to test self-checkout. Only in the early 2000s did the trend accelerate more broadly in supermarkets, which were looking to cut costs during the 2001 recession and faced stiff competition from emerging big box stores and warehouse clubs.
Walmart first tried self-checkout in the late 1990s.

“The logic was based on economics and not customer-centric,” Charlebois said. “From the beginning, customers hated them.”

A 2003 Nielsen survey found that 52% of shoppers found self-checkout lanes “okay”, while 16% said they were “frustrating”. Thirty-two percent of buyers called them “excellent.”

The mixed response led to some supermarket chains, including Costco (COST)Albertsons and others, to remove the self-checkout machines they had installed in the mid-2000s.
“Self-checkout lines get clogged because customers have to wait for store staff to help them with barcode issues, coupons, payment issues and other issues that invariably come up with many transactions,” the grocery chain said. Big Y in 2011 when he eliminated his machines.

catwalks

The move to self-checkout has also created unintended consequences for stores.

Retailers found that self-checkout stations weren’t self-contained and required regular maintenance and monitoring, said Christopher Andrews, a Drew University sociologist and author of “The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets and the Do-It-Yourself Economy.”
Stores have challenges with self-checkout, including higher levels of theft.

Although self-checkout counters eliminated some of the tasks of traditional tellers, they still required staffing and created a need for higher-paying IT jobs, he said.

Self-checkout, Andrews added, “doesn’t deliver anything that it promises.”

In the biggest headache for store owners, self-checkout generates more losses due to errors or theft than traditional cashiers.

“If you had a retail store where 50% of transactions were through automatic checkout, your losses would be 77% higher” than average, according to Adrian Beck, professor emeritus at the University of Leicester in the UK. Kingdom that studies retail losses.

Customers make honest mistakes and intentionally steal at self-checkout machines.

Some products have multiple barcodes or barcodes that do not scan correctly. Products, including fruit and meat, typically need to be manually weighed and entered into the system using a code. Clients can write the wrong code by accident. Other times, shoppers won’t hear the “beep” that confirms an item has been successfully scanned.

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

Other customers take advantage of the poor supervision in self-checkout aisles and have developed techniques to steal. Common tactics include not scanning an item, swapping a cheaper item (bananas) for a more expensive one (steak), scanning counterfeit barcodes taped to their wrists, or successfully scanning everything and then walking away without paying.

Stores have tried to limit losses by beefing up self-checkout security features, like adding weight sensors. But additional anti-theft measures also lead to more frustrating “unexpected item in bagging area” errors, requiring intervention by store associates.

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

Self checkout is here to stay

Despite the many shortcomings of self-checkout for customers and store owners, the trend continues to grow.

walmart (WMT), Kroger (CR) Y general dollar (managing Director) they are exclusively testing self-checkout stores. Costco and Albertsons have brought back self-checkout after eliminating it years ago. Amazon (AMZN) has taken the concept a step further with cashierless Amazon Go stores.

It may simply be too late for stores to turn their backs on self-checkout.

Amazon has developed Go stores without cashiers.  Other retailers are trying to get on board.

Today’s stores cater to shoppers who perceive self-checkout to be faster than traditional tellers, though there is little evidence to support it. But because customers are doing the work, rather than waiting in line, the experience can feel like it’s moving faster.

Store owners have also seen competitors install self-checkout and have determined they don’t want to miss out.

“It’s an arms race. If everyone else is doing it, you look like an idiot if you don’t have it,” said David D’Arezzo, a former executive at Dollar General, Wegmans and other retailers. “Once you let it out of the bag, it’s pretty hard not to offer it anymore.”

Covid-19 has also accelerated the spread of self-checkout.

During the pandemic, many customers opted for self-service to avoid close interactions with cashiers and baggers. And the challenges of hiring and retaining workers have led stores to rely more on machines to get customers through the door.

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