Our Thinking

Remember when shoppers started being asked to fill their own bags at the grocery store checkout? This new task struck many as a major inconvenience, if not just wrong. Weren’t shoppers paying for a service as well as a product? To boot, ditching designated baggers seemed like a crafty way for the retailer to save money.

That said, the first stores to do it were the discount retailers (committed to cost cutting by definition), and those that followed suit usually provided both options. Over time, as people adjusted – and started bringing their own more eco-friendly, reusable bags –  the practice became the norm.

Today, a comparable change is occurring, and eliciting a similar reaction: self-checkouts.

As self-checkouts have increasingly been introduced into stores, Canadians have responded in different ways. According to a study done by Dalhousie University just last year, many Canadians have dabbled in self-checkout, but not all have fully embraced it. Among survey respondents, 66% had tried self-checkouts, but just 11% of shoppers used them regularly.

Among the reasons shoppers aren’t embracing it is that it is often a hassle that doesn’t save time. Complaints like these have driven some retailers to remove their self-checkouts.

Nonetheless, many industry experts believe the digitization of retail, including self-checkouts, is inevitable. However, as with any innovation, retailers need to consider whether and how self-checkout fits with their own business objectives, before jumping on board. Then, its implementation also needs to be carefully considered.


Back to customers’ objections…

Good strategy always starts with some homework. So why do many consumers dislike self-checkout?

One reason, or rather explanation, is generational. Mature customers often don’t like self-checkouts because they’re digital newcomers and still a bit averse to technology. And these shoppers still appreciate the human interaction they have with cashiers.

But the technology is not a snag just for the older crowd. Truth is, there are issues with the technology that turn off shoppers of all ages. Among the common complaints: The bagging area is too small to accommodate more than one or two bags at a time. The scanner doesn’t always work. Dealing with produce – which has to be weighed and distinguished by a code or variety – is a challenge. Self-checkout is not always faster. And different stores have different types of machines.

Even when it all runs super smoothly, though, some customers go back to the age-old question: ‘Aren’t we paying for a service as well as a product?’ They resent doing the work that used to be done for them, and object to a cost-saving measure that appears to only benefit the retailer.


Now for the defense

Why will consumers likely come ’round to embracing self-checkout, as industry experts predict? And how can retailers use strategy-led design to ensure they’re ahead of the game?

We can examine some reasons for self-checkout’s promising future by reviewing the

reasons why many shoppers dislike it today.

The other side of the generational explanation applies here. Younger customers are digital natives. They feel comfortable with the technology and don’t mind not interacting with the cashier. They’re used to online shopping, after all. When they do enter a brick and mortar store, they are looking for a level of service beyond merely happy, friendly staff.

In terms of the technical issues, one could say self-checkout is at a prototype stage. Yes, the problems are real now but they’ll be resolved as the technology improves. It will become more user-friendly, more reliable, and faster. And machines will likely become more standardized.

Finally, people do adjust. When shoppers started being asked to bag their own groceries, many objected. Today we don’t think about it – it’s become the norm. And if the technology improves so that self-checkout is indeed faster, customers will agree it benefits them too.

As we transition to a potentially cashier-free world of the future, what can retailers do strategically to make the transition smoother?

Retailers looking to introduce self-checkout should remember that ‘tech for tech’s sake’ is never a good idea. Self-checkout is not an end in itself. Simply replacing cashiers with machines for reasons of efficiency, with no implementation plan, can lead to irritated customers and suboptimal business outcomes.

When looked at as a ‘means to an end,’ self-checkout becomes an opportunity. The retailer can use self-checkout to enhance the customer experience, thereby incorporating it into their value proposition and boosting customer loyalty.

Customers today welcome – and often want – more technology, but they also want good service. It’s a question of balance. Asking them to scan their own items might be fine, as long as it’s smooth and service is improved in some other way. In addition to relevant product information being made super accessible, for instance by providing further automation (QR codes), perhaps the retailer could also ensure knowledgeable and approachable staff are always close by. This way the retailer’s message is positive: “We care about your time and want to make your shopping experience better. We’ve introduced self-checkout to save you time and free our staff to spend more time answering your questions.”

The key to strategically planning and managing the transition stage is knowing the profile of customers. Enticing early adopters might be relatively straightforward. Late adopters will need more time. Clearly offering them the choice to use either self-checkout or a traditional cashier will reassure them they are not being pressured (as one retailer found out when they tried to implement self-checkout in a way deemed a bit too forceful, resulting in some bad PR).


Measure twice cut once

When it comes to introducing self-checkout, some stores have learned the hard way how to do it well. Learning from mistakes is admirable, but it’s a missed opportunity. By doing some homework and devising a good strategy, retailers can use self-checkouts to enhance the customer experience – and boost the bottom line.