I apparently am different from many Britons. I totally love self-service checkout systems, particularly at grocery stores. Many Brits apparently have a different take — at least according to the BBC (The problem with self-service checkouts, Dec 9):
New research suggests 48% of Britons think self-service checkouts are a nightmare, neither quick nor convenient. Quite the opposite in fact, and their complaints are all too familiar.
Now the article is unclear about the other 52%. Are they indifferent or in love? Do they dislike the machines to an extent less than totally loathing? What is clear is that the author of the piece has an ax to grind and would like to sink that ax into the speaker squawking “unexpected item in the bagging area.”
Despite her flights of hyperbole, the author has a point. These machines are not perfect and take some learning to use well. She points to specific issues like not being able to use your own bag or that mysterious warning when the recently bagged item does not match what the machine was expecting. Apparently, Brits also have paranoid thoughts that have never crossed my mind:
Finally, after the palaver of paying, there’s the nervousness about leaving the shop. Did I scan it all correctly? Did I select the right type of bread roll from the menu? Will I feel the long arm of the store (manager) on my shoulder as I walk out the shop?
“I spend half my time worrying that security will arrest me for selecting the wrong price Blueberry muffin,” said shopper Sharon Adams when consulted in a survey on self-service tills conducted by Fatcheese.
So if so many customers hate them, it must be that the companies are saving a ton of money by using them, right? The firms claim there is more to the story:
Supermarkets say the move towards self-service checkouts is not all about cutting costs. They argue the tills can speed up your shopping trip, says Ahmed Zaman, from shopping website Fatcheese, which conducted the research. “But many shoppers have yet to be convinced that they really save time,” he says.
Not everyone agrees with this analysis, claiming that assertions of time savings are misleading because they are based on being able to walk right into service without waiting. Further some assert that consumers are fooling themselves:
“People perceive self-service checkouts to be quicker but that’s because they are actually doing the work,” says [Bjorn] Weber[, of retail analysts Planet Retail]. “In reality they take longer than someone serving you, but it’s annoying for the shopper to stand around waiting.”
This suggests that Mr. Weber is a fan of David Maister. Back in 1985, Masiter published The Psychology of Waiting Lines, which laid out some principles for managing waits in service settings. One of his main points is that “Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time.” So it is not clear that trading a wait for traditional service for a more engaging process of checking out is per se bad. Also, I am not sure that it is wrong to focus on settings in which customers can just walk into service. In the very first post of this blog, I argued that an advantage of self-service systems is that they can provide extra capacity at off-peak times when traditional staffing cannot be justified. To put this another way, when my local Jewel is totally packed on Saturday afternoon, they would be better off with two conventional checkout lanes in place of the four self-service lanes they have. However, late in the evening or early on Sunday morning. They can provide more capacity and a better chance of walking right into service than the Dominick’s two blocks away that does not have self-service checkout. I once overheard a manager at Jewel comment to another worker that he had not had to man a cash register since the self-service lanes had been added.
Let me add that the supermarkets in Chicago (OK in greater Evanston) don’t use self-service lanes correctly. Most stores don’t regulate who utilizes the self-service options. I can check myself out even if I have 100 items in my cart. Here’s a phrase I rarely use: They did this better in North Carolina. I usually save that phrase for pork barbecue but it applies here. My first experience with self-service checkout was at Harris Teeter stores in North Carolina. They reserved the self-service lanes for those with a small number of items. One can break down the checkout process into two steps, a fixed time to process payments etc and a per item scanning time. (We’ve done this. See this post.) The fixed part is going to be largely the same between standard and self-service checkout — particularly when it comes to credit card payments. Customers, however, are slower than pros at scanning cereal boxes and identifying Fuji apples. Hence, the store loses capacity when it moves customers to a self-service lane (assuming that a full-service lane would have been staffed). How big a hit they take is driven by the number of items in the basket. My local Jewel has four self-service checkout stations AND at least one if not two express lanes for those with small baskets open. That’s boneheaded. Those who are the best fit for self-service are being served by an expensive resource that is more efficient with larger baskets. As I said, they did this better in North Carolina.