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05/09/2022

Achieving Better Self-Checkout Experiences With Mixed Technologies

Providers look to evolve their offerings as frictionless solutions like Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech gain ground
Mike Duff
Contributing Editor, Progressive Grocer
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Installing Mixed Technologies for Better Self-Checkout Experiences
Diebold Nixdorf emphasizes modularity, scalability and upgradability in self-checkout solutions that can integrate new technology and so adapt to any retail environment.

Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology and similar systems under development are getting a lot of attention today, but self-checkout isn’t going to disappear overnight, and is already adapting to address market conditions in regard to consumer expectations, design developments and operational considerations, including labor.

Stores can offer more convenient shopping using the self-checkout options that are spreading through the market. They can reduce costs, make effective investments and, in addition, differentiate themselves from their competition by introducing new ways of shopping that today’s customers, who are used to endless-aisle, get-it-now shopping on their computers and, even more critically, their tablets and smartphones, might well prefer to more traditional purchasing methods.

The camera-based, skip-the-checkstand Just Walk Out technology may not prove practical in all store formats in its present form. After all, it would take a lot of the cameras required in the Just Walk Out design to cover the biggest food retail concepts, including marketplaces and food-and-drug formats. Still, it’s possible that the technology, perhaps combined with others, will make gains. As that suggests, grocers have an opportunity to install mixed technologies that will provide better self-checkout experiences.

That said, from its Seattle base, Amazon continues to forge ahead with its Just Walk Out vision. Plans for Just Walk Out technology include its installation in both existing and new Amazon store formats, as well as at third-party operations. But even as Amazon expands its high-profile approach to quick store exits, other retailers are testing systems such as the mobile-phone-and-app-based Scan and Go system that’s been trialed at Sam’s Club. Although such systems may have a larger, even dominant place in future shopping, they aren’t at a point, in terms of operations and consumer acceptance, to replace checkstands, manned or otherwise, over the next few years.

What’s more likely to happen, according to people working in companies that are making the hardware and software that powers self-checkout systems work, is a hybridization that gives grocers the ability to balance technology, hardware costs, operational requirements, labor and customer experience. At least for now, self-checkout systems will be the increasingly capable fulcrum on which tradition and innovation balance. Established producers of self-checkout equipment are looking at the current business demands on grocers and developing new ways to improve their checkout prospects.

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Achieving Better Self-Checkout Experiences With Mixed Technologies
Pan-Oston wants to give grocers the opportunity to shift between manned checkstands and self-checkout as volume and circumstances require.

Flexible Solutions

Pan-Oston, which has long provided checkout fixtures for major retailers, has looked at the future and seen the need to stay flexible.

“The future includes what we call convertible checkout lanes,” says Russell Callaham, product manager for the Bowling Green Ky.-based company.

Convertible checkout lanes produced by Pan-Oston can be switched around from self- to manned operation. The company wants to give grocers the opportunity to shift between manned and self-checkout as volume and circumstances require. So, at times when traffic volume is slight, an employee can operate a checkstand that functions in the traditional manner. However, that same fixture can flip to self-checkout when it benefits the grocer. This approach takes into consideration the current labor market and the grocer’s need to provide an acceptable level of customer service at an appropriate cost.

By shifting to self-service at those times when shopper traffic warrants, grocers can cut their labor costs while keeping checkout lanes open, according to Lindsay Bisel, marketing specialist at Pan-Oston. Of course, grocers not only have to deal with the higher labor costs in the market today, but they also have to cope with the constant problem of missed shifts as employees call in sick or are otherwise unable to report to work. In response to this, retailers can create more self-checkout lanes and not disappoint shoppers stuck staring at unmanned cash registers.

“You can just shift to self-checkout,” notes Bisel. “No lanes have to be closed, so the store won’t go from 10 lanes to two open.”

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Achieving Better Self-Checkout Experiences With Mixed Technologies
Diebold Nixdorf offers self-checkout systems ranging from vertical stands to more typical shelf and screen designs.

Enhancing the Experience

For its part, Diebold Nixdorf wants the consumer to be the center of everything it does and the products it develops. 

“The major trend that we see in the self-service space is the absolute focus on the consumer experience within the store,” says Matt Redwood, director of advanced self-service solutions at the Hudson, Ohio-based company. “The focus is shifted more so than ever to: How do I enrich the consumer experience in my store? How do I better tailor the technology that I’m providing to those consumers in that exact store so that I deliver the experience that they expect, because loyalty, brand loyalty, store loyalty is at an all-time low? So they are constantly chasing this euphoric customer experience to try and make sure that the consumer comes back to that store again.” 

According to Redwood, the technology should suit a large strategic purpose, and so the company will have multiple discussions with a client to determine who the core customer is and how it wants to interact with key shoppers, keeping in mind both the organizational and customer adoption curves, as the grocer has to introduce both employees and shoppers to new technology and make them comfortable with it.

Retailers should consider self-checkout as part of the larger store environment and work with self-checkout tech provider partners in scaling and advancing the potential of their installations. Retailers also should think about the role of store employees in the system. Of course, many retailers assign store personnel to the self-checkout area to smooth the path of consumers through the payment process. In those circumstances, Redwood notes, retailers should train them not only to assist when shoppers don’t quite understand how to check themselves out, but also to handle delicate situations such as when the equipment alerts them to potential shoplifting. 

In keeping with the theme of building around shopper needs, Diebold Nixdorf emphasizes modularity, scalability and upgradability in self-service retail solutions that can integrate new technology and so adapt to any retail environment, Redwood says. The company offers self-checkout systems ranging from vertical stands to more typical shelf and screen designs. 

Redwood advises that retailers should aim to create the number and array of touchpoints that shoppers want while minimizing overlap so that self-checkout components work together in a cost-effective manner. He also points out that such self-service elements as scan and go have to be considered as complementary elements as they find their way onto customer smartphones.

Customers’ Choice

Self-checkout can provide shoppers with choice, an important factor for many consumers. According to David Wilkinson, president and general manager at Atlanta-based NCR Retail, today’s self-checkout technology’s recent evolutions increase flexibility, speed and safety, but also empower consumers with choices across a larger range of payment types, including tap-to-pay and mobile payments, and enable more contactless purchases. As such, self-checkout does much more than just scan barcodes and take payments. 

“Advancements in artificial intelligence, computer vision and facial recognition present valuable opportunities to delight customers and save resources,” says Wilkinson. “For example, these innovations enable self-checkouts to manage age-restricted purchases without needing an attendant to intervene. They also automatically identify items being scanned by appearance and weight.”

Although hardware is the most conspicuous component of a self-checkout structure, it’s part of a much more complex and potentially valuable system.

“Today’s [self-checkout] hardware now connects to the entire store via software and services solutions,” notes Wilkinson. “At NCR, for example, our strategy is software and services led with our NCR Commerce Platform that helps better connect self-checkouts with the rest of a store’s technology, such as other point-of-sale solutions, inventory management and back-office technology. This integration streamlines operations for retailers and allows their hardware to stay agile and keep up with what’s next in consumer expectations.” 

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