By 2010 we all expected to have house-robots, hover cars and jet packs, and so it’s disappointing to get here and find all we get is the Roomba, Toyota Prius and the iPad. However there is one area where technology has been progressing with the futuristic pace we’d expect of the early twenty-first century.
Throughout the industry, many retailers are replacing manned tills with automated equivalents. Shop assistants chatting about weather as they serve customers are being replaced by the calm but firm insistence that there is an “Unexpected item in bagging area”.
But are these new systems the way of the future, or are they doomed to go the way of the Segway?
EVERY LITTLE HELPS
The self-service checkout is certainly growing in popularity. In the UK, Tesco has self-service counters in 256 stores, where they are responsible for a quarter of all transactions.
Last October, Tesco went a step further and introduced an Express store in Northampton where customers were served by only one member of staff and a host of self-service tills.
Sainsbury’s is following suit, with a growing 220 stores offering self-service, and more set to follow. Wal-Mart has had self-service checkout lanes since 2004.
Many believe that the number of self-service tills is going to double over the next year. So this is clearly a growing trend, but what is the appeal?
From a retailer’s point of view, the first advantage is reliability. A self-service checkout will deliver the same service to every customer, not getting snippy if they are unpleasant, or bending or breaking rules if they are persuasive or abusive. Self-service checkouts can also reduce your staffing requirements, with one member of staff able to oversee as many as four to six checkout lanes simultaneously.
For the customer self-service tills also provide a range of benefits. Self-service checkouts can allow greater numbers of customers to pay and leave with greater speed. Up to six checkout units can be fitted into the space of one cashier’s station. Also, many customers prefer to scan and pack their own shopping without having to deal with a cashier.
OR DOES IT?
However, the self-service till comes with its downsides. For one thing, many customers like dealing with a human being when they come into a shop. What’s more, not everyone is tech savvy enough to know intuitively how to operate the tills. Even with the demonstration animations on the touch screen, and the audio instructions, many people still have trouble working self-service systems. This can cause delays, slowing queues down in the very way these tills were designed to avoid.
On top of this, in the age of the environmentally-conscious Bag For Life, the finely tuned scales used to verify customers’ purchases mean that often customers are forced to use the disposable plastic bags lest they incur the wrath of the “Unexpected Item in Bagging Area” alert.
For these reasons and others, self-service has proven unpopular with the shopping public. In a survey by Fatcheese found that 48 percent of people asked thought self-service checkouts were a nightmare. 46 percent said that items wouldn’t scan properly. 13 percent complained about having to do all the work, and 12 percent said they always had to get help.
For this reason, manned tills aren’t quite consigned to the history books just yet.
“We’d never get completely rid of manned tills,” a Sainsbury’s spokesperson has said. “For us it’s all about offering people the choice. Self-service checkouts are very popular with the customers who use them a lot, but we realize people either like them or they don’t.”
So the best solution for retailers will probably be a hybrid system, a combination of staffed checkouts, and automated ones, which are still being improved. For example, an alternative system some supermarket chains have taken to using involves portable barcode scanners, allowing customers to scan their products as they tour the store, while kiosk-type checkouts are still being constantly refined and perfected.
The day of the completely automated supermarket is not upon us yet, not by a very long way. However advanced the interfaces becomes, they will always lack that human touch. But we most definitely have not heard the last of the self-service checkout.