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The Self-Checkout Debate: A Proxy For A Much Bigger Issue

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A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic magazine published an opinion piece entitled, “Self-Checkout Is a Failed Experiment”. It’s a good read; the author’s argument is that the systems are expensive, tend to fail a lot, require a lot of IT support, and often exhibit wonky behaviors related to putting items on scales and bagging that are more of an irritant than a convenience to customers.

But the author noted a more insidious effect: “Perhaps an even larger issue than the problems that self-checkout directly creates is the set of behaviors its presence can enable—from executives, from employees, and from customers. Retail executives, looking for any available corner to cut in order to juice short-term profitability, took self-checkout’s proliferation as a license to trim store staffing to the bone.”

Full disclosure, I’m not now and have never been a fan of “grocery style” self-checkout systems. They are expensive, they take up a lot of valuable selling space, and the real objective of these things is to reduce labor, not because customers like the convenience.

Ultimately, what’s important is what retailers think about the technology. We have data from our benchmarks to help us out, and the technology has been damned by faint praise since RSR first started asking about it. As far back as 2008, only 24% of retailers assigned “high value” to self-checkout systems, and in 2011, 52% of retailers said that they have “no plans” to invest in them. By 2019, the idea of stationery self-checkout had morphed into “customer instant checkout” and “customer mobile app checkout” (which retailers rated as “high value” options, 64% and 60% respectively). But the same study revealed that over 50% of retailers cited “security and privacy concerns” as the #1 reason they wouldn’t be moving away from traditional point-of-sale any time soon.

So, the question is, are traditional self-checkout systems good, bad, or irrelevant?

In the “good” camp are companies like Target and Home Depot. I’ve used both of those systems, and they are easy and reliable.

In the “bad” camp are those systems found in many grocers’ stores. As Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull wrote:

You still have to wait in line. The checkout kiosks bleat and flash when you fail to set a purchase down in the right spot. Scanning those items is sometimes a crapshoot—wave a barcode too vigorously in front of an uncooperative machine, and suddenly you’ve scanned it two or three times. Then you need to locate the usually lone employee charged with supervising all of the finicky kiosks, who will radiate exasperation at you while scanning her ID badge and tapping the kiosk’s touch screen from pure muscle memory.”

That’s not hyperbole, at least in my personal experience. I crosschecked that POV by asking RSR partner Paula Rosenblum to chime in. Here’s what she said:

Self-checkout offends a lot of shoppers because they feel like a) it’s taking away jobs (which it does), and b) they don’t like the retailers offloading store work onto them. You can find this expressed across all social media platforms if you look… The reason that people seem to prefer self-checkout is the long lines they experience at regular checkout. But long term, this is not a good retailer tactic. Consumers are not stupid. They know that there are longer lines because fewer traditional checkout lines are being manned. There is one thing I have said forever: Pain avoidance, (not friction…just pain) is different from a satisfactory customer experience. And pain avoidance is not a wise long term customer experience strategy.”

So, what about newer self checkout technologies like consumer-grade mobile devices and “scanless” checkout systems that don’t require consumers to queue up at stationary kiosks? Here’s Paula again:

I don’t see ‘just walk out’ ever taking off at scale. ‘Now you want me to do the bagging, too? Not cool.’ We need to not kid ourselves around the customer experience. The customer experience is borne from people, processes and technology. Not just technology.”

I think Paula has it exactly right. Retailers have systematically squeezed labor in the stores, frequently using technology to do it. But in the process, they undercut the customer experience one tiny wound at a time – to the point where there isn’t much to recommend the store shopping experience. Axios contributor Jennifer A. Kingson said it this way:

A confluence of depressing factors — from stores closing en masse to frustrating self-checkout lanes and unwearable fashion trends — has made the time-honored tradition of a fall shopping trip lose its luster… While retail sales are healthy, the industry sorely needs shoppers to return to stores rather than just buying online, lest the in-person shopping experience — so important to that magic alchemy that bonds consumers to a brand — wither and atrophy.

That might be the best reason to get rid of self-checkout systems in stores: consumers just don’t need another excuse to abandon stores and shop online. That’s not hyperbole either: RSR’s 2022 benchmark on the state of the store pointed out that “6 out of 10 retailers say Amazon (and other Ecommerce giants) is fast becoming the default for shoppers” – in fact, retailers cited that as their greatest business challenge.

Even the biggest users of self-checkout systems seem to understand the potential for damage to the brand that self-checkout technologies may have created, however inadvertently. For example, Business Insider recently reported that “Walmart is pulling self-checkout lanes from at least three stores, requiring shoppers to have an employee ring up their orders.”

The argument about the pros and cons of self checkout may be a proxy for a bigger issue, that retailers have finally jumped the shark when it comes to squeezing store labor. That’s something that all retailers – both promoters and detractors of self checkout – need to pay attention to, right now.

Newsletter Articles November 10, 2023
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