If you’ve encountered these irritating alerts at the self-checkout, you’re not alone.
Customers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the self-checkout experience. Stores also have challenges to overcome.
Despite the headaches, self-checkout is growing.
In 2020, 29% of transactions at food retailers were processed through self-checkout, up from 23% the previous year, according to the latest data from the food industry association IMF.
This begs the question: why is this often problematic and unloved technology taking over retail?
Make customers work
Instead of employees behind a counter gathering products for customers, Piggly Wiggly allowed shoppers to browse the aisles, pick items from the shelves, and pay at the checkout. In exchange for more work, the model promised lower prices.
Self-checkouts, however, were designed primarily to reduce store labor expenses. The system has reduced cashier costs by up to 66%, according to a 1988 article in the Miami Herald.
The first modern self-checkout system, patented by Florida-based CheckRobot and installed in several Kroger stores, would be almost unrecognizable to shoppers today.
Customers scanned their items and placed them on a conveyor belt. An employee at the other end of the belt put the groceries in a bag. Customers would then take them to a central checkout area to pay.
But self-checkout hasn’t revolutionized the grocery store. Many customers were reluctant to have to do more work in exchange for benefits that weren’t entirely clear.
“The rationale was based on the economy, not the customer,” Charlebois said. “From the start, customers hated them.”
A 2003 Nielsen survey found that 52% of shoppers considered self-checkout lanes to be “ok”, while 16% said they were “frustrating”. Thirty-two percent of shoppers rated them “awesome.”
The shift to self-service checkouts has also had unintended consequences for stores.
Although self-checkouts eliminated some of the tasks of traditional cashiers, they still needed to be staffed and created a need for higher-paying IT jobs, he said.
Self-checkout, Andrews added, “doesn’t deliver what it promises.”
In the biggest headache for store owners, self-checkout leads to more losses due to error or theft than traditional cashiers.
According to Adrian Beck, Emeritus Professor at the University of Leicester in the UK, who studies retail losses, “If you had a retail store where 50% of transactions were through self-checkout, the losses would be 77 % higher” than average.
Customers make honest mistakes and intentionally steal from self-checkouts.
Some products have multiple barcodes or barcodes that do not read correctly. Products, including fruit and meat, usually have to be weighed and manually entered into the system using a code. Customers may type in the wrong code by accident. Other times, shoppers won’t hear the “beep” confirming that an item has been successfully scanned.
“Consumers aren’t very good at digitizing reliably,” Beck said. “Why should they be? They’re not trained.”
Stores have tried to limit shrinkage by adding security features to self-checkouts, such as adding weight sensors. But additional anti-theft measures also lead to more frustrating “unexpected item in bagging area” errors, requiring store employees to intervene.
“There’s a delicate balance between security and customer convenience,” Beck said.
Self-checkout is here to stay
Despite the many shortcomings of self-service checkouts for customers and store owners, the trend is only growing.
It may simply be too late for stores to turn their backs on self-checkout.
Today, stores cater to shoppers who perceive self-checkout to be faster than traditional checkouts, even though there is little evidence to support this. But, because customers are doing the work, rather than queuing, the experience can feel like it’s moving faster.
Store owners also saw competitors installing self-checkouts and determined they didn’t want to miss out.
“It’s an arms race. If everyone does it, you look like a fool if you don’t have it,” said David D’Arezzo, former executive at Dollar General, Wegmans and d other retailers. “Once you take it out of the bag, it’s pretty hard not to give it away.”
Covid-19 has also accelerated the spread of automatic checkouts.
During the pandemic, many customers opted for self-service to avoid close interactions with cashiers and baggers. And the challenges of hiring and retaining workers have led stores to rely more on machines to get customers through the door.