Last updated: Self-checkout at the grocery store: Reality bites

Self-checkout at the grocery store: Reality bites


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Everyone seems to have a love-hate relationship with grocery self-checkout. Shoppers appreciate its speed and convenience, but are frustrated when it doesn’t work (which is often). Retailers love how it can reduce labor costs, but hate how it can lead to more shoplifting.

With nobody feeling warm-and-fuzzy about scan-and-go counters, several major retailers have taken steps recently to remove the technology from some of their store locations, including Wegman’s Food Markets, a northeastern grocery chain, and Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer.

Do these moves signal self checkout’s demise? Not by a longshot. Despite grocery chains like Trader Joe’s saying they’ll never install automated kiosks, self-checkout technology isn’t going away.

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The self-checkout surge

Self-checkout machines have been around since the 1980s, but only become widespread in recent years. In 1986, US retailer Kroger was among the first to install them in 1986. According to a newspaper account at the time, customers used the machines to scan items and sent them to a bagger by placing them on a conveyor. They paid for their purchase at a separate station.

With today’s machines, shoppers pass product barcodes past handheld or embedded scanners, place their items in a bagging area, and then pay for their purchases with debit or credit cards.

These modern scan-and-go kiosks have made their way into many grocery stores around the world. Consider these stats:

  • Self checkout accounted for 55% of all customer interactions last year, compared to 36% in 2017, according to a study by VideoMining.
  • About 40% of pay lanes in U.S. grocery chains are now self-checkout, Catalina Marketing research showed.
  • 85% of retail customers say self-checkout is faster than waiting for a cashier, and 60% even prefer it to interacting with someone behind a counter, PYMTS Retail Tracker study found.
  • 82% of retail decision makers plan to invest in more self-checkout technology through 2025, and 45% plan to convert more cash register space to self checkout, according to a Zebra Technologies global survey.
  • The number of cashiers nationwide will shrink 10%, or by 335,000 jobs, between 2021 and 2031, in part because of self-checkout options, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts.

Aldi, Dollar General, Kroger, and Walmart are reportedly piloting 100% self-checkout stores along the lines of Amazon Fresh and Amazon Go.

Not so fast: Scan-and-go glitches

But the fast growth of self checkout quickly revealed problems with the technology. In fact, experts say current models are more of an experiment than a long-term approach and that the technology must evolve.

As automated and seamless as self-checkout counters can be, system and user errors still abound.

In fact, an astounding 67% of 1,000 shoppers polled last year said they had experienced a self-checkout failure. Twenty-five percent said they’re more likely to avoid self-checkout kiosks if they malfunction.

Part of this undeniably relates to system glitches. Machines go down all the time, and self-checkout is no exception. But user confusion about everything from how to properly position items to be scanned, buy weighted produce, prove they’re old enough to purchase alcohol, and even pay for items presents problems as well.

In addition, vision- or physically impaired shoppers can sometimes struggle with operating system screen commands, leading to errors.

Too often, it seems, customers need to call for an attendant to help at self-checkout. Hardly fast or convenient, and not the labor saving devices retailers had hoped for.

Self-checkout makes it easy for thieves

One of the major issues with current self-checkout technology is that it really isn’t built to catch thieves who deliberately “skip scans,” switch labels on products, or scan lower priced ones (like bananas) instead of higher priced ones (like steaks).

Indeed, 39% of all thefts in grocery stores occur at self-checkout, according to Auror, a retail crime intelligence and loss prevention company.

Self-checkout theft also most likely factored into the $112.1 billion in inventory losses that U.S. retailers suffered last year.

In response, many stores have employees watching shoppers scan their items, which undercuts self-checkout’s presumed labor savings and is a stressful job.

Many retailers, like Kroger, are installing kiosk cameras near self-checkout stands that watch how customer behave at checkout and feed that information into an artificial intelligence platform in order to identify potential problems. Some like Costco are more diligently checking receipts. And a few, like Safeway in California, are even installing security gates that won’t let shoppers pass without first scanning their receipts.

Customers miss the human touch

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many customers have complained about a lack of personal attention in brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, 41% of shoppers say in-store experiences are less enjoyable since 2019, with 60% blaming inadequate staffing, according to a survey by Theatro, a mobile communications platform provider.

The fact many retailers are putting certain items in locked plastic cases only adds to the negative shopping experience.

For younger consumers who have grown up in a digital world, such depersonalization might not be an issue. For instance, 84% of GenZers would choose a self-service kiosk over a human-run checkout whereas only 46% of Baby Boomers would do so, according to a survey by the gambling site PlayUSA. But many shoppers still want a human interaction option, experts say.

“Some of the experiments where retailers tried to force adoption of self-checkout have backfired because some shoppers, especially older ones, don’t want it,” says VideoMining CEO Rajeev Sharma.

“They see self-checkout as too much of a hassle. The physical retailer, to remain relevant, will have to cater to people who crave service, even if the cost of labor is higher.”

The future of self-checkout technology

Industry experts expect barcode-and-scanner systems to give way to more modern, fully automated systems with just enough nearby staffing to make shoppers feel the love.

One of the more promising innovations is the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and readers to improve customer experience and speed secure checkout.

“Technology-driven solutions like RFID are the future of the checkout process.” says Liza Amlani, founder of the Retail Strategy Group consultancy.

The technology is already in use in places like Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue store in New York City where, instead of scanning barcodes, shoppers simply plunk their RFID-tagged merchandise into bins and pay.

Amazon uses RFID in its Amazon Go stores and its Just Walk Out technology, which includes cameras, shelf sensors, sensor fusion, computer vision, and generative AI to enable retailers to sell a wide range of products, such as food, beverages, groceries, and home goods.

Amlani says manufacturers are making it easy for retailers to implement things like RFID chips into a product’s packaging. “It’s becoming more cost effective to add RFID into your products than it is to lose irritated customers or deal with theft at self-checkout.”

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