From the Publisher: Checking out

Albertsons’ decision to eliminate self-checkouts should get retailers thinking about the overall role of technology in their stores.

 

By Seth Mendelson

I am never quite sure whether I like using self-checkouts or not. On one hand, it always seems cool to scan my own merchandise. Frankly, it gives me the feeling that despite my advancing age I can still be on the cutting edge of technology, even though I am the first person in the office to beg for help from the tech department when my computer freezes.

Yet, I often get the feeling that self-checkouts have always been more trouble than they are worth. First, and I guess most importantly, they never seem to work right. I have always thought that it was my fault but it seems the people in line ahead of me have the same problems, so perhaps I am not to blame.

Second, using a self-checkout also seems to take more time than the manned checkout process. Even when I get it going right, I often end up accepting the help of store employees to complete the checkout process. Of course, this all begs the question: Why am I using a self-checkout if I am getting help from the very same store employees I am trying to avoid?

In fact, I really think that the only reason I use self-checkouts is because the lines are usually shorter, probably because most people avoid them for all the reasons mentioned above.

Officials at Albertsons (not to be confused with the Supervalu-owned Albertsons, which have not given up on self-checkouts) apparently agree with me. They announced in late June that they would eliminate all self-checkout systems at more than 100 stores by the end of August and replace them with traditional checkouts and express checkouts. Company officials said they are trying to provide more opportunities to improve customer service and grow their relationship with consumers.

I think the careful inclusion of self-checkouts is extremely important and retailers need to examine whether they work for them on a case-by-case basis. Aside from the fact that self-checkouts are really not that efficient, they create a barrier between the shopper and the store employee, which does nothing to enhance the overall shopping experience. Consumers want to engage store employees during certain parts of the shopping experience. The pharmacy and the deli/meat counters are two important areas where interaction with the consumer is vital.

The checkout is the third area where consumers should interact with store employees. While consumers hate waiting on the checkout line, the direct interaction with the cashier—not to mention the help with bagging—can only build a bond between the shopper and the store.

Of course, having good employees manning the registers is crucial to this process. But if retailers can find top-notch workers and ensure that the traditional checkout process is as simple and quick as possible, they can make strides toward keeping their customers satisfied with old-fashioned, yet tried-and-true, methods.

Technology is a wonderful thing that, when used properly, can bolster efficiency and profitability. But gadgets should never be a substitute for direct interaction between the customer and the store employee.

Self-checkouts have a place at the supermarkets, especially as younger, more tech-savvy consumers enter the marketplace. However, like everything else, their inclusion should be carefully evaluated and measured based on customer feedback.

Seth Mendelson can be reached at  646-274-3507, or smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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