By Cat Robinson
What is self-checkout?
Basically the system allows consumers to scan the barcodes on the items they wish to purchase themselves, and make payment via card or cash. The scanned items are then placed into the ‘bagging area’, which is essentially a set of scales. Here the total weight of the items is compared against pre-programmed weights to ensure that no un-scanned items have been included, which prevents shoplifting. If the weights don’t match then the attendant is alerted. In the case of items without barcodes – such as loose fruit and vegetables, the customer chooses the item from a touch-screen, and the item is automatically weighed and priced.
Amazingly, the first unit was installed way back in 1995 at a branch of Safeway – but real popularity has only taken off recently, likely due to increased foot traffic at peak times. Stores which use the technology observe that they are most frequently used by shoppers with a small amount of items who want to spend as little time checking out as possible, whereas a shopper with a trolley of items is more likely to use the traditional cashiered lanes. But like any technology, self-checkout has its pro’s and con’s too.
Advantages of self-checkout versus traditional checkout:
On average, it is possible to have three self-checkout units in the space required for ordinary check-out lanes.
Because self-checkout allows many shoppers to make their purchases simultaneously with only one staff member, queues are reduced and time is saved.
Because fewer staff is required, the retailer can save money which may enable them to reduce their pricing. The flipside of this of course is that fewer jobs are created – in South Africa where unemployment currently hovers around 40% this could be worrying.
Disadvantages of self-checkout – “Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area”
The largest disadvantage of self-checkout systems is their unfamiliarity, and the teething problems of a relatively newly implemented technology. First-time users often feel at a loss and are embarrassed to appear incompetent. The technology itself also needs a great deal of improvement, with a huge amount of complaints such as the following (from Postdesk.com):
“They’re invariably a nuisance designed for the convenience of the retailer, not the shopper. What next? Will Tesco force me to stock the shelves myself? The best customer service involves people, not machines.”
As well as from Frances Frei:
“We’re happy enough to pump our own gas or huddle around a salad bar, but something about self-checkout went horribly wrong. Every step of the process was anxiety-producing, from fumbling with the scanner to squinting our way through complicated instructions, all as the line of strangers behind us grew increasingly restless. Coupons were hard to use, our mistakes were broadcast by a series of aggressive beeps, and the specter of ‘accidental theft’ overshadowed the entire experience.”
Shoppers also frequently experience issues with inefficient cracked or dirty scanning surfaces, the tills ‘freezing’ and incorrect error alerts. The profusion of problems has even resulted in the popularity of memes and cartoons such as the following:
Which shows just how common an occurrence this can be in a shopper’s daily life. One YouTube User even composed a little song from barcode scanner beeps with a backing track of the “unexpected item in the bagging area” refrain.
However, there is always room for improvement, and the self-checkout barcode technology has been likened to the introduction of the ATM. Many users who were at first sceptical of the new technology and experienced problems using them would never accuse the technology of not being useful today!
Because it can be difficult to supervise all customers using the self-checkout system – especially at peak times when queues are building up – there are ways of abusing the system. According to a report in the Daily Mail, almost a third of users have admitted to misusing the tills. This is most commonly done when buying loose fruit or vegetable items, and picking the cheapest vegetable type regardless of what you’re actually purchasing.
Other techniques include placing small un-scanned items into the bag when weighing it. If the supervisor is alerted is it easy for the offender to pass the attempt off as an accident. In fact Costco in the US recently eliminated the checkouts from all of their stores, citing that employees did a better job.
Initial set-up cost:
Implementing these checkout systems of course requires an upfront investment by the retailer, which may have knock-on effects for the consumer in the short run.
It seems clear that while there are still a myriad of issues with these systems, there are also plainly obvious benefits for customers and retailers, especially with the constantly increasing numbers of shoppers cramming into stores. There are also plenty of users that swear by these checkouts, saying they find them very easy to use and that they speed up their shopping trips immensely. (And of course it can alleviate some discomfort for purchasing those more… personal items.)
Like any new technology, acceptance of the self-checkout till after 200 years of human-assisted shopping will take some time, as will weeding out all of the technical glitches. The ideal of course is to give the consumer the benefit of either choice.
Have you had experience of a self-checkout system? What did you think about scanning your barcodes yourself? Do let us know in the comments below!