I love self-service checkout, but it is again under attack. Here in Chicago, Jewel-Osco (one of the major local supermarket chains) is pulling self-service checkout lanes from some of its stores (Jewel scrapping self-checkout at some stores, Chicago Tribune, Sep 25). Their stated goal is to “reconnect personally with all of its customers.” Now the Wall Street Journal is piling on with an article declaring that computers just aren’t up for the job of letting people buy green beans (Humans 1, Robots 0, Oct 6).
The human supermarket checker is superior to the self-checkout machine in almost every way. The human is faster. The human has a more pleasing, less buggy interface. The human doesn’t expect me to remember or look up codes for produce, she bags my groceries, and unlike the machine, she isn’t on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet paper. Best of all, the human does all the work while I’m allowed to stand there and stupidly stare at my phone, which is my natural state of being. …
In a recent research paper called “Dancing With Robots,” the economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane point out that computers replace human workers only when machines meet two key conditions. First, the information necessary to carry out the task must be put in a form that computers can understand, and second, the job must be routine enough that it can be expressed in a series of rules.
Supermarket checkout machines meet the second of these conditions, but they fail on the first. They lack proper information to do the job a human would do. To put it another way: They can’t tell shiitakes from Shinola. Instead of identifying your produce, the machine asks you, the customer, to type in a code for every leafy green in your cart. Many times you’ll have to look up the code in an on-screen directory. If a human checker asked you to remind him what that bunch of the oblong yellow fruit in your basket was, you’d ask to see his boss.
Let’s take this in two parts. First, if people prefer a conventional check out experience because that allows them to zone out then I have to wonder how Jewel’s plan to reconnect with its customers is going to work. I remember as a kid my mom having what seemed like endless conversations with cashiers. Of course, we were in a relatively small town and most of the women (they were virtually all woman) working the registers had either gone to high school with my mom or had a sibling who did. Now we live in a more class divided society. I suspect that none of the cashiers at my local Jewel are actually from the neighborhood or that the store’s staffing policies actually build in time for cashiers and customers to catch up on how their respective in-laws are doing.
But what of the claim that the information needed to run checkouts cannot be simply encoded for computers? As much as I love self-service, I have to admit this is a valid criticism. An experienced cashier can handle produce purchases much more efficiently than a customer at a self-service lane. There are other ways of looking at this. There is a wonderful (all be it a little old) FastCompany article on the rise of self-service machines that offers some “rules” for what self-service should accomplish (The Toll of a New Machine, May 2004). They include this nugget:
Use automation to improve the task at hand. Airport kiosks change the experience of checking in by showing passengers a map of the airplane, where they are sitting, and where there are open seats. They make checking in not just faster, but better. McDonald’s customers who use a Kinetics kiosk to place their orders have absolute confidence that the “no onions” request has been made. In both cases, kiosks provide not just convenience but a sense of power and control.
In this light, it is hard to see how self-service checkout improves the task at hand unless you are very concerned that the bagger will crush your plums with that carton of orange juice.
So does that mean we should write off self-service checkout as the Apple Newton of retail — a clever idea that just wasn’t ready for prime time? I don’t think so. Yes, it is inferior technology but it does allow stores to improve service at some points in time. Staffing the front end of a supermarket is a challenging problem because customer arrivals are not constant over time. If there were exactly 50 people per hour coming through the store, the firm could staff to meet that demand. Things get harder when there are 15 customers in some hours but 150 in others. Yes, the store can scale its number of cashiers up and down, but if the firm aims to provide a consistent level of service, that gets expensive. That is, for any given level of service, larger systems (i.e., those with high arrival rates) can operate at higher arrival rates. For example, if the goal is to have no more than 20% of customers wait more than two minutes before entering service, the utilization rate of cashiers is going to be very low when the demand rate is low. The firm will consequently offer worse service at off-peak times. Thus, if your game plan is to make a quick trip to the store when you expect it to be relatively empty, you could be in for a surprise when you go to checkout.
Self-service provides a viable option here. Self-service lanes make it relatively cheap to expand capacity when the store is less busy. That is, focusing on settings in which the stores is really busy is missing when these system create value. If the lines for the registers are backing up the aisle, then, yes, the store would be better off with more conventional registers and no self-service lanes. However, if demand varies over the week and there are only a few hours in which demand is super high, self-service lanes may be the best way to balance good service (in the sense of short waits) with costs.