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    Self-Checkout is Still Controversial

    Examining the retailer, consumer perspectives

    By John Karolefski

    Fifteen years after grocers first installed self-checkout machines in their stores, this wonderful innovation remains somewhat controversial. Basically, most retailers love these units, but some shoppers have issues with them.

    Let’s examine both sides.

    All new chain-owned stores nowadays will include self-checkout lanes, say vendors of the hardware. In fact, they have reported strong double-digit growth in the self-checkout market around the world for the last few years.

    Grocery retailers implement self-checkout terminals to reduce labor costs on the front end. The ROI must be attractive because these units are proliferating. If the checkout person loses a job, that is not a concern for shoppers unless it’s their son or daughter. Then the store will also lose a customer.

    Let’s face it: Most shoppers really appreciate not having to stand in a long line at checkout when they only need to buy four or five items and the express checkout lane has several folks lined up. Self-checkout to the rescue.

    I’m sure there are shoppers who will refuse to frequent a supermarket that does not offer self-checkout. Armed with a few fill-in items, these folks want to get in and get out of the store quickly. Self-checkout performs that service for them. I’m not sure that is the kind of behavior grocers desire if they really thought about it, but that is a topic for another day.

    Why do you suppose grocery chains such as Big Y Foods, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons, Costco and others have removed self-check machines from their stores in the last few years? Well, Albertsons cited customer complaints. Big Y pointed to scanning problems and theft, which reportedly is easier with self-checkout because a cashier is not there to spot a porterhouse steak tucked under a shopper’s shirt.  

    The most recent example took place in the U.K. in April. The Morrisons supermarket chain polled its shoppers and learned that 60 percent of them would prefer a staffed checkout instead of self-checkout. So Morrisons installed 1,000 staffed express checkouts in its stores in response to shopper demand for fast but personalized service.

    Interestingly, many shoppers in Morrisons said they preferred staffed checkouts because they liked to chat with the cashiers or share a joke. Imagine that. Human talks to Human instead of Man interacts with Machine, a growing occurrence that is infecting our high-tech society. But I digress. 

    Back in the U.S. as an undercover reporter in grocery stores, I have observed many shoppers frustrated with shelf-checkout. The overhead light always seems to be blinking furiously while a robotic voice announces, “Help is on the way.” And just like that, a human rushes over to fix the problem. Maybe the shopper couldn’t find rutabaga on the machine’s produce chart. Maybe a senior is technology-challenged. It’s always something. The last thing a shopper hears before running out of the store is, “Please remove all items from the bagging area.”

    Me, I like shelf-checkout and use it whenever I have only a few items. But maybe Ken Morris, a principal at Boston Retail Partners, said it best: “Self-checkout may be right for some grocers and not for others, or in some locations and not others.” I would add that it may be right for some shoppers and not for others. 

    By John Karolefski
    • About John Karolefski John Karolefski is a veteran business journalist with 25 years of experience covering CPG, retail and technology. Over the years, he has edited several trade publications and is the co-author of three books: "TARGET 2000: the Rising Tide of TechnoMarketing," "All about Sampling and Demonstrations," and "Consumer-Centric Category Management." He has appeared on CNN, CBS Radio and BBC Radio to discuss marketing issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

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