Self-service check out is checking out

Supermarkets in the US are abandoning the self-service checkout lines, which were once heralded as the future of grocery shopping. We tapped our Zintro experts to tell us what is behind this decision and what technology will take its place, if any.

Ray England, a supermarket industry executive, believes that before one can determine the reasons behind supermarket retailer’s shift away from self checkout systems and what might replace these systems, one first has to understand the motives behind the installation of self checkout registers in the first place. England poses these questions:

  • Did retailers choose to install self checkouts in their stores to enhance customer service, speed up the checkout process, or offer more choices to their consumers?
  • Did retailers do so in response to overwhelming consumer requests for self checkout or was the decision to install self check out registers driven by a effort to cut front end labor costs?
  • Did the retailers develop a strategy for promoting the installation to the consumer to enhance brand equity in the marketplace or was brand equity and the impact of self checkout on the brand even considered? If so, what is the measure for success?
  • If one operates a supermarket format with a brand equity that revolves around customer service, product selection, and so on, how is self checkout promoted?
  • If one operates a format with a brand equity that revolves around low price, is there a different consumer communication to promote self checkout?
  • Is there an incentive for consumers that choose self checkout?

“Of course, none of these questions even touch on the consumer perspective, which may have determined just how comfortable the average consumer is with weighing produce, entering PLU numbers, and managing coupons in a self checkout scenario. It seems that where self checkout is concerned, there are too many questions and not enough answers,” England says.

Chris Burns, an expert in retail operations and strategy, says that ten years ago self-service checkouts were heralded as the future, and indeed over that period we have seen their appearance across the world, especially in supermarkets and big box outlets. “The introduction was supposed to improve customer service by speeding up transactions, thereby reducing queues in store for customers with a minimum number of items for processing,” he says. “But ten years on we are seeing a reversal and the return to cashier terminals. So what is causing this change? First, people actually like talking with someone at the checkout who can answer questions. Second, it was found that self scanning causes increased pressure on some people that leads to confusion over payments, accidental theft, and actual theft that ended up in the introduction of staff to oversee the self scanning terminals. Problems also occur when age verification is required for purchases of alcohol or discount coupons.”

Burns predicts that over the next few years new bar codes will require the upgrade of scanning systems that may further reduce the number of self scanning options. “The other big change that retailers are trying to grapple with are the use of smartphones that allow customers to scan items and automatically charge accounts,” says Burns. “The key requirement with this method will be some form of electronic validation system in the basket or before leaving the store.”

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