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Self-checkout on the wane? Some supermarkets back away from self-service

Posting in Design

Stores seek more high-touch over high-tech in a process bedeviled by high rates of errors and exceptions.

One of the ironies of technology is that it shifts manual labor to the paying customer. Consider all the self-service portals now in existence that require that customers do their own data entry -- travel sites, insurance policy applications, bank transactions, and so forth. But having customers doing their own work may not work so well all the time.

Such has been the case with supermarkets, where many have put in self check-out lanes, with customers doing their own bar-code swiping and bagging. Frankly, I'm quite happy to do that in busy stores. (Disclosure: my first job was working as a bagger at a US Army commissary store.) And it seemed as if self-checkout is part of the inevitable march of retail technology.

But reports are circulating across the Internet newssphere that a couple of leading supermarket chains are reconsidering customer self-service check-out lanes. For, example, Kroger is reportedly designing a new store in Texas that does not include self-checkout lanes. And, as StoreFrontBackTalk and the Associated Press reports, Albertsons LLC has started to remove the self-checkout lanes in all of its 217 stores in seven states. (This does not include the Albertsons/SuperValu stores based in the western United States.)

Kroger is moving toward more express lanes to pick up the slack. As Evan Shuman of StoreFrontBacktalk relates, at the core of supermarkets' decisions to move away from self-checkout is a desire to replace high-tech with high touch:

"Sources within both Kroger and Albertsons LLC cited the same self-checkout concern, which is that many customers perceive it to be less customer-service-oriented than staffed checkout lanes. Also, an increasing number of products require staff intervention, and that—coupled with consumers making errors in using the systems—can slow the self-checkout lines dramatically."

The high rate of errors and exceptions make self-checkout a more difficult proposition for end-users, versus simpler self-service systems. Another issue that while the volume of self-checkout items can be measured, it's difficult to measure the satisfaction of customers using these systems -- there is no audio capture for their growls of discontent wrestling with the machines that don't properly record coupons or bar codes.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure