In part two of this month’s just-food management briefing, Glynn Davis looks at the success – or otherwise – that retailers have had with self-service technology and considers where the sector could go next.

Such has been the growing belief in self service that some European retailers have experimented with stores that only offer self-checkouts and do not have a manned till in sight. 

Tesco has the highest number of self-checkouts currently installed across its estate and had been testing a self-checkout only store in the UK since October 2009, according to Björn Weber, research director for retail technology at Planet Retail, who says it had five self-scan tills overseen by a single member of staff. 

“While this concept is new in its homeland, Tesco has gained a lot of experience with self-checkout-only stores in the US. Most of its Fresh & Easy stores do not have any manned tills,” Weber says.

However, it is fair to say that the results for retailers like Tesco have been mixed. Metro Group in Germany had given self-checkout only stores a go in its Real and Edeka chains but stopped the tests as the shopper acceptance was regarded as too low. There have also been accusations that self service has been reducing customer service levels. 

As such, other retailers have been assessing whether the use of any self-service technology is right for their businesses. The most high-profile retailer to decide to shun self-service is US-based Albertsons, which is removing all self-checkout units from its 200-plus stores. 

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“The last two years has seen an explosion in self service – driven by consumers with mobile devices – but now retailers are identifying that there was a lot of exuberance,” says Ken Duffy, marketing manager for retail store solutions at IBM systems and technology. “Maybe they’d not fully thought through [its use] in their stores and some like Albertsons have decided to pull out of self service.”

Duffy cites the Delhaize-owned Bloom chain of “conceptually brilliant” upscale stores in the US as an example of where self-service technology works in some stores but not quite so well in others.

The availability of handheld devices for shoppers to scan and bag their groceries and kiosks that display information such as store maps and printable recipes has failed to attract some shoppers into certain Bloom stores and Delhaize is converting them to another US banner, Food Lion.

In contrast, Duffy highlights US chain Giant Eagle, which, he says has thoroughly thought through exactly why it wants to use self-service technology in its stores and it is working very well for the business. It typically operates 20 to 25 kiosks in its stores that run a variety of applications – from ordering goods, to wine selections and the provision of bakery information. 

“They’ve decided on more touch-points to let the customer take over these specific processes and to then use the [customer] data that the kiosks provide. This strategy works well for them,” he says.

This variation in the acceptance level from customers of self service in different businesses and stores does not surprise Sarah Kellett, retail consultant at Fujitsu, who says that in the City of London retailers can see as many as 78% of transactions going through self-checkouts. In more sleepy towns, she says stores “could not hope to achieve this rate”. It is imperative retailers deploy technology on a store-by-store basis depending on the audiences in those outlets. 

According to Kellett it is about ensuring the technology is part of an integrated customer experience. “Retailers need to make it more about the customer than the technology. Will it attract customers to use it?” she says.

Kellett believes this translates into having a mix of self-service options as well as shop attendants present to help customers. Although self service has been proven for small basket sizes, she suggests it has not so far been applied to retailers’ most valuable customers – the big spenders doing their large weekly or monthly shops. 

This thinking led Fujitsu to develop a bespoke solution for France-based Auchan where there are four variations of self-service device present.

Firstly, there are hand-held scanners, which have been around for some years and involve customers scanning their goods as they go around a store and then typically paying for them by linking their scanner to a payment tower.

Secondly, there are regular scan and bag checkout units. Thirdly, the stores also have a trolley-to-trolley checkout option involving the automated weighing of all the items as they are moved from trolley to trolley as the customer self-scans them. The two measures need to tally for an accurate read. 

And finally, there is an innovative assisted dual-lane solution. This involves the sales assistant using a hand-held device for scanning a customer’s shopping in the first lane, after which the goods are bagged and then paid for at a separate payment station. Meanwhile, the assistant will have moved on to scanning the next customer’s shopping in the second lane.

However, the big innovation at Fujitsu is the development of a ‘tunnel scanner’ in conjunction with Kroger.