2013.29 | self-checkout redux

I read this Time magazine article on self-checkout at the beginning of the summer and found it again in my pocket reading list, and it made me stop and think about self-checkout all over again.   I’ve been involved with self-checkout on and off for over a decade now.  There have been all kinds of arguments for and against self-checkout over those years, and frankly, all arguments are conjecture and opinion.

Retailers and consumers vote with their wallets.  That’s the measure that should get the most attention.   Self-checkout has grown tremendously in usage in North America and around the world through all the time I’ve been involved, and it will continue to grow into the future.

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There were a few small arguments against self-checkout in the Time article, and those should be in the article to provide a balanced view.  I respect that need for balanced perspective, but the arguments are some I’ve heard many times before selling and implementing self-checkouts.

  • The article indicates that some retailers are removing self-checkout. The names in the article are few and a little dated, frankly, and many more retailers are adding self-checkout than are removing them in my experience.  The list of retailers offering self-checkout is getting longer, and not shorter.  If any retailer is removing self-checkout, it’s generally not a failure of the self-checkout technology, it’s more likely one of a couple of things.  Either the self-checkout has not been implemented in such a manner as to drive value to clients and the retailer, or self-checkout is just not a fit for a particular business model.   Both of these issues are very much addressable.    Every retailer and every environment is different and must be addressed as such.  In fact, while the Time article indicated that self-checkout was removed from IKEA in the US, if you walk into an IKEA stores in Canada as I do, you will generally see more self-checkout than assisted service lanes.   Unlike the early days, self-checkout now comes in many flavours and can be adjusted to suit most needs.
  • The article indicates that theft is a problem. Theft is a problem in every retail environment.  I’ve been involved in many self-checkout implementations at various retailers across Canada and in the US.  I have colleagues who implement self-checkout all over the world.  I’ve worked with people who previously worked with competitive self-checkout solutions.  We all find the same thing when we discuss this issue among ourselves.  There are a plethora of tools available from all self-checkout vendors and others to enable store staff to minimize theft.  These tools must be embraced by the store staff to ensure shrink is not an issue.  More importantly, self-checkouts require caring, well trained, customer focused staff to provide assistance to clients and provide the same sort of diligent oversight for theft and dishonesty that the regular front end of any store requires.  Why would self-checkout be any different than any other part of the store in that regard?  It isn’t.
  • The article indicates that 52% of consumers prefer to use self-checkout and that 48% “pretty much hate it”.  I didn’t see anything in the cited Cisco study summary that indicated that polled consumers “hated it”, only that 52% prefer to use self-service if given a choice.  In fact, 61% of those polled were even willing to visit a fully automated self service store.   I like those numbers.  If there was a vote in the western world, 52% would win the day for most anything.  In fact, anything we can get clients to agree to over half the time is incredible.  Why not consider how many retailers are building smartphone apps to drive business to their stores and even allow for mobile checkout.  Does anyone consider that crazy in today’s mobile obsessed society?  Only 56% of Canadians and Americans own smartphones.  Does that mean retailers are wasting their time on something only half the population can even use?  Definitely not.

If that reasoning isn’t enough, and really, these concerns are not particularly convincing for those with experience with self service, there are a few things you might not consider about self-checkout that I’ve come to understand:

  • Self-checkout takes people away from the assisted service lanes, making the line shorter for those that really prefer a checkout experience with a cashier.  If you hate self-checkout, you can’t hate the fact that the line for a cashier just got shorter.
  • Self-checkout doesn’t have to remove the personal touch.  In great implementations it can leverage it fully. Self-checkout attendants are not always the best cashiers or most ‘technical’ of the store staff.  Well trained attendants who are willing to engage with customers are generally better choices and provide a better experience for customers in the store.   They can read whether customers need help and either back away or step forward to assist as the situation requires it.  If a personal touch is a key element of the retailer’s ethos, they have every opportunity to be friendly to clients and interact with them appropriately.
  • When self-checkouts are used primarily for smaller transactions, it increases the productivity of the assisted service lanes as cashiers only scan larger orders.  Tendering is the slowest part of the transaction, so the dollars per hour in transactions handled by the assisted lane cashiers tend to increase.
  • An attendant can handle 4-6 lanes at the same time very easily.  That means that 4-6 people can start their transaction without waiting in line instead of only 1 person who doesn’t have to wait.  At a single lane, 60 second transactions would drive 90 second average wait time for 4 customers in line.  With 4 self-checkouts there is an average wait time of 0 seconds.  Does anyone really like waiting in line?
  • New smaller, space saving self-checkouts are finding a place in smaller footprint urban stores.  I’ve seen 3 checkouts easily replaced with 6 self-checkouts, and leaving the space feeling more open, as there is no space needed for a cashier to stand.  Cashier and client stand on the same side of the unit.
  • With new footprints and convertible self-checkouts, it is now possible to keep every lane in a store open for the entire time the store is open.  Why waste lanes and space that cannot be used without an attendant?  Every square foot counts.

Frankly, I don’t find a great deal of argument against self-checkout any more.  I was even surprised to come across this article stating that it was even a question.  Self-checkout is a mainstay.  It’s an assumed option by retailers and consumers alike.  In today’s omnichannel world, we can consider it the third channel after assisted service POS and eCommerce.   It was a channel in the omnichannel retail universe well before it was called that.

The Time article is correct in that self-checkout does appear to be the on-ramp for mobile self service.  Self-checkout taught all of us a different paradigm for shopping in a store. Mobile will do that again.   Just as self-checkout evolved into different modes, in store mobile apps will vary in function to suit the situation.  Contrary to the article, you may not even need to scan anything with mobile shopping.  Stay tuned.

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