The world can be broadly divided into those who love self-checkout and those who hate them. (We already discussed it here: “Love or loathe: Self-service checkout” where my colleague confessed his love to self-checkouts).
I am of the (rare) indifferent type. I rarely, if ever, use them and find their main utility in taking people off the main checkout lanes. I found the new development reported in a recent article at the Seattle Times( “Some supermarkets replacing self-checkout lanes” h/t to Niraj Patel) somewhat surprising: both Kroger and Albertsons have started designing stores that no longer include self-checkouts lanes:
For Boise-based Albertsons, self-checkout no longer fits with the customer-service experience it wants, spokeswoman Christine Wilcox said. “Our customers are our highest priority, and we want to provide them with an excellent experience from the time they park their car to when they leave,” Wilcox said.
I am not 100% convinced about replacing self-checkout lanes. I do agree that self-checkouts are a bad idea during peak times since they divert the wrong customers to the wrong resource at the wrong time. During peak times, customers who are not used to self-checkouts tend to choose these, since the regular lanes are longer. Yet, since these customers are not used to self-checkout themselves, it take them longer to process their baskets, exacerbating the congestion in the store, exactly at the time where more customers are exposed to the quality of the service. But self-checkouts have their places: they are about providing good and quick service in a very cheap way during off peak time, when customers appropriately self-select their preferred service.
While Albertson’s is replacing these with regular lanes, Kroger is taking a more tailored approach:
As it remodels stores, Kroger is considering the metro or European style of checkout lanes, with one customer line for multiple staffed express lanes vs. self checkouts…. A recently remodeled Kroger store in Dallas has both the metro lanes and self-checkout lanes. A new store under construction also will have both quicker options, he said.
Metro lanes use the old idea of one line in front of multiple cashiers. As we all learned in our first queuing or operations course, this type of configuration reduces waiting time significantly, ensuring that customers move faster, and shoppers don’t get stuck behind customers with large carts or issues with their payments. This configuration is also “fairer“ as it ensures that those who arrive earlier are also served sooner. For many years supermarkets resisted adopting this configuration due to space constraints, the fact that the area near the checkout is considered a high-margin area, and the fact that the time from the head of the line to the cashier may be long due to the physical nature of cart and aisles. In the US, this method has been adopted already for a while at the Columbus Circle Whole foods, where “line directors” are used to improve the efficiency of the waiting line.
I don’t think this is the end of the self-checkout technology. The same way Kroger is using both Metro lanes and self-checkouts depending on the store traffic, we are going to see more and more tailored options. There are several startups that are working on self-checkouts that occur when a person puts the items in their carts, replacing the idea of the waiting line altogether. As long as the incentives are aligned and consumer behavior does not exacerbate the congestion in the supermarket, I am in favor.