On paper, self-checkout sounds like a win win system. Customers can take control of the purchasing process, checking themselves out when they finish shopping. No need to stand in line or wait for staff to scan everything. Privacy can be maintained; no one else knows what they are buying. But is it really working? Bernice Hurst investigates.

Staff can be freed up for different activities as they don’t have to sit around waiting for customers to come through their till or, conversely, deal with the pressure of having a queue halfway back up the aisle. Fewer staff are needed to oversee self-checkout tills, therefore retailers can save money on labour costs.

But is the scenario accurate or is it all a matter of perception? Do customers feel that they are taking less time to checkout just because they are participating and being more active? Is it actually taking the same, or more, time to do the job themselves? Are inexperienced customers any faster at scanning and packing than experienced staff who do it for a living?

Is it really more convenient?

The convenience and time taken for self-checkout depend on a number of factors, not least the skill of all shoppers using the system at the same time. One shopper may have just a few items and have acquired the necessary experience to scan, bag and get out in seconds. The shopper in front may have many items and/or be slow or a first-timer, not used to the technology and not confident or dexterous enough to make the most of it.

Two recurring complaints highlight shoppers’ less than total conviction that self-checkout is preferable to being served. One is the difficulty in recognising and scanning produce. The other is waiting while shoppers in front struggle to complete the task.

Just who reaps the benefits?

There have also been questions asked about where the retailers’ savings on labour costs are going. Obviously not into lower prices or loyalty rewards. Stores may be encouraging customers to use the self-checkout lanes, but when The Boston Globe posed the question, “what’s in it for me?”, one tester asked “why am I doing all of this work? What is the benefit here?” Another shopper told the Seattle Times that he couldn’t see any point standing around pushing buttons when he could get someone else to do it.

Self-checkout has been approached differently on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, where Safeway set the ball rolling back in 1996, customers carry a hand-held scanner around the shop with them. Each item they select is scanned before going into the trolley and usually packed into the bags that will be carried out to the car without having to empty and re-pack them. When shopping is finished, a receipt is printed out and taken to the till for payment.

Investing in shopper education

A similar system at Waitrose is running in 49 of its 141 branches. When customers register at Waitrose they are given a lesson by dedicated staff who demonstrate how to use the scanner. They are also given an assortment of re-usable shopping bags. As with Safeway, the scanner produces a receipt when it is returned to its display unit. Payment can then be made at a dedicated Quick Check lane or using a machine that scans the customer’s account, credit or debit card.

Unlike Safeway where some branches have little take-up, Waitrose Director of Selling and Marketing, Mark Price, believes that the system has enough advantages to win customers over. In addition to avoiding queues and being given convenient bags to pack as they shop, the system is said to be perfect for those on a budget as the scanner displays a running total of what is being spent.

More recently, both Tesco and Sainsbury’s have begun trials of self-checkout systems. Tesco has opted for the more American-style scanning at the checkout counter while Sainsbury’s is supplying hand-held scanners to shoppers. Both have indicated that 20-25% of customers in participating shops are using the new system. Like Mark Price, who wants Waitrose customers to have an “interesting and enjoyable” shopping experience, Tesco maintains that “speed, convenience, ease of use and fun” have all been cited as advantages. Says IT director, Colin Cobain, “customers want to play shopkeeper. They enjoy scanning…and like the greater control it gives them.”

Richard Dodd, strategic programme manager at Tesco adds, “Our staff is telling us it’s exciting, fun and they welcome the increased opportunity to interact with customers.”

Although self-checkout machines have been available in various stores across the US since the mid 1990s, the rate at which their presence has grown has increased dramatically in the past three years. According to the Food Marketing Institute, the number of machines in supermarkets has tripled in that time. At the end of 2001, approximately one-fifth of the country’s 32,265 supermarkets were using them, says the Seattle Times. The paper also reports that Canadian-based suppliers, Optimal Robotics, saw their sales increase from 30 in 1997 to 1937 in 2001.

The thin downside for retailers

So far, the downside for retailers is slight as long as the equipment doesn’t break down as frequently as it did in the early days. Customers scanning and bagging their own shopping have less time to be tempted by those impulse buys which are conveniently located next to the till. And there is, of course, the return on investment calculation. Unless customers can be persuaded that doing it themselves is a good thing, the cost of installing the systems may outweigh the savings made or the additional sales achieved by moving people through faster and more happily.

For all that, there is a way of making self-checkouts a win win strategy for retailers and consumers, however. As with most aspects of shopping, the resounding and repeated request from the public is for choice. Those supermarkets which retain some checkouts with experienced operators as well as offering scanners or self-checkout lanes for those who feel competent and prefer to do it themselves will be the clear winners in the popularity polls.