If you’ve encountered these annoying self-checkout machine alerts, you’re not alone.
Customers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the self-checkout experience. Stores also have challenges with that.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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 move to self-checkout has also created unintended consequences for stores.
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.”
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.
It may simply be too late for stores to turn their backs on self-checkout.
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.