Self-checkout: Yes or no?

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Imagine the quintessential exhausted parent rushing through the store with fussy kids in tow only to realize four or five people are ahead of them in every line. Would self-checkout be a help or a hindrance? On the one hand, it might shorten lines by drawing consumers to the kiosks. On the other hand, who can easily juggle kids, scanning, bagging, and payment all at the same time?

There’s no question that self-checkout is a convenience for some people. But does that convenience compensate for other challenges that self-checkout brings, and can the overall customer experience ultimately be compromised by these scanning machines? 

Weighing the benefits against the risks

For all its benefits, many stores are still evaluating the pros and cons to self-serve. A recent article in The Atlantic claims self-checkout is failing, pointing out that the “kiosk technology, as it stands, just isn’t good enough to support the level of autonomy from the vagaries of paid human labor that retailers wish their stores could have.” In other words, the machines replace cashiers but fail to replace the layers of labor these employees perform in a store–providing only one task: checkout.

Additionally, trained cashiers and baggers are more efficient. Self-checkout promised speed, but has actually proven slower. Not only are cashiers more experienced than buyers, they can also be scanning while consumers unload their carts. Whereas with a singular person, each task is completed one at a time. Many hands make work light.

The “speed” advantage comes only from having more scanners accessible at any one time. But even that has its drawbacks. With more scanners comes employee cutbacks, and with fewer employees comes insufficiently met customer needs. From customer assistance to cleanliness–machines just can’t multitask the same as human employees. In addition, they can malfunction and require maintenance. As The Atlantic puts it, “Self-checkout machines might always be at work, but, on any given day, lots of them aren’t actually working.”

Perhaps the most obvious drawback, however, is the increase in theft. With one employee for every eight to ten registers, it’s much easier for thieves to sneak by. While some stores feel the savings in labor outweigh the loss in theft, others are not so sure. Walmart recently removed self-checkout entirely from some locations, along with Wegmen’s and Trader Joe’s.

Testing self-checkout on a small scale before large-scale rollout

With uncertainty starting to swirl around the ROI of self-service, it’s essential retailers find a way to ensure their investment will pay off before diving in – or to evaluate solutions if already invested and facing challenges.

A good example: a convenience store wanted to know if installing self-checkout would increase sales. They opted to test in a few stores and compare that against matched control stores. In the majority of the stores tested, they found inside sales went down instead of up with self-checkout.

Many other aspects of self-service can be tested as well. Some related things MarketDial clients include: theft reduction strategies and the impact on sales of employee training initiatives. With the pros and cons of self-checkout still being determined, be sure to test before you invest. For more information on how testing can support you, check out these resources:
Seamless shopping: Embracing the era of frictionless retail
How to improve customer experience in supermarkets
Unlock the value of your data with A/B testing

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