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Self service checkout at supermarkets

This AP story about supermarkets scaling back on self service checkout aisles, which was recently in the Chron business section, has been making the rounds in the progressive blogs.

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used traditional cashier-staffed lanes.

Supermarket chains started introducing self-serve lanes about 10 years ago, touting them as an easy way for shoppers to scan their own items’ bar codes, pay, bag their bounty and head out on their way. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts as they encouraged shoppers to do it themselves.

The reality, though, was mixed. Some shoppers loved them and were quick converts, while other reactions ranged from disinterest to outright hatred , much of it shared on blogs or in Facebook groups.

An internal study by Big Y found delays in its self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons, payments and other problems; intentional and accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less-expensive varieties; and other problems that helped guide its decision to bag the self-serve lanes.

It’s interesting that this story comes out at a time when Kroger is running billboards that feature its checkers saying things like “We’ll open an extra checkout lane for you”. Nice to know that providing good customer service is still seen as a competitive advantage at least some of the time.

I’ve used the self-serve lanes at supermarkets, but only when I have a small number of items – basically, I find it to be a quicker option than the Express lane, mostly because there’s almost always a self-serve kiosk available. At Kroger, there are four of them in a given lane. But for someone with a week’s worth of groceries in their cart, there’s no way this will be a time saver, because you have to bag your own items in addition to checking them. I don’t see how the chains could have viewed these as anything but a supplement to their existing setup, not a replacement for it. If they did make that mistake, they seem to have learned from it.

Phil Lempert, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based food industry analyst, noted that supermarkets have a few other motivations to get rid of the self-serve lanes beyond customer service.

They will eventually need to replace their checkout computers to read newly emerging types of bar codes, so there’s little business sense in keeping and replacing those self-serve machines if they’re not well-used anyway, he said.

Perhaps more important, he said, the growing trend toward using bar code-reading programs on smartphones is likely to change everything in supermarket shopping over time.

Maybe someday you’ll be able to scan while you shop and have the total automatically billed to your credit card, or debited from your bank/PayPal/Google/whatever account. Bring your own bags with you to put stuff in as you pick it up and you can leave directly as soon as you’re done. I can get behind that.

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4 Comments

  1. Joshua bullard says:

    you know sometimes i get a little worried about how reserved some people can get-”go in the store with your own bags,zap the bar codes-load in your own bags and hit the front door a running”. i say no to that-i say thats some one about two years away from be coming a 100 percent recluse-and we dont want that-what the stores found out is what starbucks already knew-people didnt just shop for grocieries-they also shopped for the experience-the break away from the rest of the world to per ruse down the isle’s of food-they realized it wasnt actually a race after all-that people arent really running a marathon with a premedidated goal of “get me in and get me done as fast as humanilly possible i hate this place” hang around a little bit-theres nothing wrong with waiting in line with a group of people at the grocerie store -dont closet your self in or out for that matter-hang around- the waters fine.
    respectfully submitted joshua ben bullard

  2. David says:

    Unless I have something very awkward (like 40 lbs of dog food) I generally use the self-service checkouts for all shopping – from a quick run to a (bi-)weekly shop. However, I normally have at least one child with me, and they run the scanner while I bag, so we are ready to go in little more time than it takes to scan the stuff. This is helped by Giant Eagle having fairly good scanners/checkers – we rarely have significant rejections from the system, and the scan arch is topless, so stuff fits through easily.

    One significant benefit that I find is that stuff is already somewhat sorted by the time I get home — there is a bag for the freezer, one for the garage, and so forth, so putaway takes less time than it used to.

  3. Noel Freeman says:

    I almost always use the self-checkout lanes, but I think the real failing of them that leads to these statistics we see about them being slower or less efficient is the way they handle the processing of groceries in the first place. Once you scan a product, the system waits for the product’s weight to be detected on the bagging area. For those of us who can scan groceries almost as fast as a regular checker or have a trusty assistant, like David, we find ourselves standing around waiting to be able to scan the next item. In the end, I don’t believe the users make it a less viable option, it is the technology itself.

  4. [...] self-checkout lanes follows a trend in other supermarkets. Wal-Mart is going the other way, with more reliance on self-checkout. That [...]

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