Aug 23, 2012

Self-Checkout: Not so Convenient

The latest news of a big retail company bailing on self-checkout, this time IKEA, seems to point out a growing consensus on automated check out: it's not working.

Other chains who've recently shed their self-checkout option include Big Y, Kroger, and Albertson's.

Why get rid of something that is meant to make it more convenient for customers to shop and quickly pay for their goods?

Well, besides making it five times easier to shoplift items in the checkout area, both intentionally and unintentionally- as was the case this year at Home Depot- self-checkout is often inconvenient for customers, can be unsafe for the public, and is detrimental to workers.

Self-checkout's Inconvenience

What busy mom, shopping with her kids, wants to have to check and bag her own stuff? She’s paying for service, and for human interaction, not to do the job herself.

Looking at the case of IKEA, it is obvious just how counter-intuitive self-checkout can be. Typically, the cashier lanes were opened only on peak shopping days. That meant that customers were funneled into a smaller group of self-checkout lanes that became clogged with shoppers trying to operate the system and self-manage their purchases.

As stated in a recent article from, Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research Associates, an international consulting firm devoted to kiosks, personally experienced the frustration with IKEA’s self-checkout.  Mendelsohn described a typical shopping experience when the only option for checkout was the self-service kiosks. Roughly half of the shoppers hopped from lane to lane in attempt to shorten their wait times. Once able to use the self-checkout, users found the directions to be unclear and the scanner uncooperative.

"There was no explanation on how to use them," said Mendelsohn, who has tested kiosks worldwide. "I was aiming the scan gun at the bar codes and it just wasn’t working."

Mendelsohn explained that while checking out at IKEA, "an employee came by and said I needed to hold the scanner about six inches from the bar-code. I asked her, 'How was I supposed to know that? There is nothing on the screen to indicate that this is how the thing works.' She shot me an angry look and walked away."

Of course, this sort of thing happens not just at IKEA, but at countless other retail stores and grocers across the country.

"When self-checkout is done well, customers love it," said Sheridan Orr of consulting firm Interrobang Agency. "However, when it is clunky and confusing, the customer is left to think, 'I have to work this hard to give you my money?'"

"Customers should feel that they are getting value from self-service—saving time, money or convenience," Orr said. "This convenience may mean that the customer scans the items while a willing associate helps them get their new desk to the car. If retailers only look at self-checkout as a way to remove headcount, they are doomed to fail," she said.

Risks to the General Public
One of the many workers whose job is put at risk by self-service checkout

Among the risks the self-checkout poses to the public, is access to liquor and other alcoholic beverages by minors.  Minors are able to purchase alcohol through self-checkout machines without showing identification over 8% of the time; but more frequently, minors use the lax supervision of self-checkout registers to steal alcohol or scan a 6-pack of soda and put beer in the bag.

This has been such a great problem that the State of California passed a law last year banning the sale of alcohol through self-checkout machines. Enforcement of the law has been postponed due to a lawsuit, but since the law was passed, the food retailer Fresh & Easy has been cited four times for selling alcohol to minors. Each sale was conducted through a self-checkout machine.

Hurting our Workers

When it comes down to it, self-checkout kiosks take jobs away from able-bodied workers.  And what for? To do a sub-par job of ringing up merchandise, only to break down and force a customer to wait for an attendant? When there are actual people manning checkout lines, these problems seldom arise, and the customer is more likely to have a speedy, friendly, service-oriented experience.

Whenever self-checkout kiosks are introduced to a store, retail clerks subsequently get replaced by the machines. With retail jobs set to become as important to our economy as manufacturers once were, this can only negatively affect our country.


margienj said...

I work in a supermarket which has 4 self checkout stands. There is always an employee stationed at the podium. However when all 4 are having problems at the same time, the employee cannot be at all four at once. Customers are very impatient, they yell back at the voice in the machine. 9 times out of 10 the customer has no business using the self check out since they have no clue what they are doing. I especially don't understand why customers will go to the self checkout when there are 3 cashiers (with no customers) ready and willing to ring them up. We need our jobs, not our hours cut because of some machine that fails more than it works. I say take them out and put real live people back to work.

Destinyjo said...

Self checkout sucks and brings nothing but hostility to the poor employee (me) trying to be in 6 places at one time, not to mention the alcohol issue and having to card EVERYONE to the tune of, "I'm not buying, I'm not drinking, you b*@#$h". The only convenient thing about it is when I'm trying to buy something quickly on my short break, but I was trained on it. 98% of the population hasn't been!

2beerla said...

The two comments prior to mine say it all. I'm tired of running 4 registers at one time, being yelled at constantly because I can only attend to one at a time. Now my company in shoving self check out down the customers throat. I have to pull people out of a regular lane bring them to SCO and ring it up for them, which defeats the purpose if I'm doing everything for them then just stick me back at a regular lane.

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