Self-service checkouts have been a feature of food retail stores for a decade or more but their use remains a subject of debate. The UK is a market where the technology is well-established and now Waitrose has decided to use the tills across its estate. Dean Best talks to Ed Brindley, marketing director for Waitrose self-checkout supplier Wincor Nixdorf, about the deal, the technology and where self-service could be heading.

Love them or loathe them, self-service checkouts are used by a wide number of food retailers across international markets.

Over the last decade or so, the use of the technology has become widespread in markets like the UK, France and the US and consumers have, save for the odd frustration, become accustomed to using self-service checkouts to pay for their shopping.

The prevalence of the technology has even encouraged upmarket UK retailer Waitrose, which emphasises the importance of customer service to the shopping experience in its stores, to roll out self-checkouts across its store network.

The technology has been in use in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Marks and Spencer stores for years but, after a pilot, Waitrose has concluded that self-checkouts can support the service it seeks to offer consumers.

"Excellent customer service is central to Waitrose’s success and transaction speed is a vital part of that, as is choice in the way customers wish to transact," Graham Heald, director of retail services at Waitrose, says. "This technology gives people an alternative payment option which is fast, easy-to-use and means their in-store journey from entry to checkout is a smooth one."

Germany-based technology firm Wincor Nixdorf has struck a deal to supply Waitrose with its self-checkouts, adding the retailer to a UK customer base that includes Morrisons and DIY chain B&Q.

Ed Brindley, director of marketing at Wincor Nixdorf, says the feedback from the trial at ten pilot Waitrose stores was "extremely positive", with at least 20% of transactions going through the self-checkouts. Brindley says that level is "in line with any of the other grocery retailers".

The pilot gave Waitrose and Wincor Nixdorf the opportunity to learn what works - and perhaps where improvements needed to be made - and Brindley says a number of key learnings emerged that both sides will look to use as they roll out the checkouts across the estate.

"We had to engage with the employees in the stores strongly and make sure we had robust training in place and make sure those staff were on hand in case customers needed to be helped through the queues. It's new to Waitrose and could be new to some Waitrose customers," Brindley tells just-food. "A mixture of machine types and configurations is preferable, depending on the demographic and store location. One of the features of our self-checkouts is modularity, in particular the sorts of payment options, so you have card-only or cash and card going through the machines. As Waitrose roll out, they will probably put a mixture in."

Such awareness of which self-checkout suits which store is vital to have a system that works over the long term. Some retailers have found that, for whatever reason, the type of self-checkout it has installed ends up not being suitable for certain stores. "One-size-fits-all gets you some of the way but it's not the optimum," Brindley says.

In recent months, there have been well-publicised examples of retail chains in the US that have decided to scale back the use of self-checkouts in their stores. Albertsons and Big Y Foods are two retailers that have decided to stop using the tills; Big Y Foods argued the checkouts "could neither improve nor replace the value of a friendly cashier" and said the technology made shopping trips longer.

However, other retailers seem to firmly believe in the technology. Tesco, for example, is now rolling out tills developed by another supplier, NCR, in its stores in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. "New technology has a big role to play in making shopping easier and more convenient for customers," Tesco chief information officer Mike McNamara said when the announcement was made.

The key question for retailers remains over how self-checkouts can cope with the different levels of customer traffic throughout the day, Brindley argues. The technology, he insists, is now proven.

"I think the volumes out there now is sufficient to put people's mind at rest. The thing they are really piloting is how it integrates with their point-of-sale software and then how does it cope with the particular peaks and troughs that a retailer has. It's more operational, not the actual reliability of the kit now," he says. "We have enough evidence now that we can give good references and really reassure people that the technology will work for them."

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a checkout supplier, Brindley says retailers should offer consumers the choice. Equally, however, he does not believe retailers should look to run stores that only had self-checkouts. "There are different [consumers] with different objectives," he says. "It's all about offering the choice for customers. It wouldn't replace the manual till, it would augment it."

Of course, there is a heap of new technology that is augmenting the self-checkouts used in stores. In some ways, after a decade or so, the self-checkout has become so well-accepted in some markets that it is no longer seen as particularly innovative.

Brindley says Wincor Nixdorf's retail customers are looking to the company to be up to speed with the latest development in technology, from contactless payment to kiosks in-store.

"There's a lot of talk about contactless so they expect us to keep up-to-date so when their customers expect them to have it, they expect us to have a solution for that," Brindley says. "Another area is mobile devices. Retailers can walk around with mobile point-of-sale and pull people out of the queue that only have a few items, which can help with peak trading."

Kiosks is one area that Wincor Nixdorf believes has a "lot of potential" and the company is piloting "a number of exciting products", Brindley says. The technology allows consumers to see what the retailer is offering online, to compare different items and use it as a point of sale, he suggests. "We will see that become more apparent in the next couple of years or so," he says.

Of course, how far grocery retailers will use kiosk technology remains to be seen, although Brindley says the likes of Asda and Sainsbury's already use certain concepts for products like DVDs. Wincor Nixdorf has also recently rolled out kiosks in four McDonald's restaurants in the UK from which consumers can order and then move to a separate queue where they pick up their food, a concept that he says is "quite established on the continent".

Whatever the future holds, Brindley believes that the growth of online shopping will lead retailers to provide more concepts that allow consumers "to help themselves". Self-checkouts, it seems, are only the start.