Technology and ‘talking to the customer’


If you have been into a major Australian supermarket recently, you will have noticed the new self-checkouts. In theory these can save time (although I seem to be incapable of getting the bar codes read) and they certainly seem to save staff. However:

  1. They are not really new. Apparently they were rolled out overseas about a decade ago; and
  2. As this article notes, they are being rolled back in the US.

Self-checkouts are a bit like replacing bank branches with ATMs. They reduce costs but also reduce the consumer experience. And just as some banks in Australia are opening new branches (after a decade of closing them) the US supermarkets are reducing the number of self-checkouts because:

We just want the opportunity to talk to customers more.

The interesting question is why major players tend to ‘overshoot’ with technological innovation – being seduced by lower costs but failing to recognize that there is reduced customer value. Let’s hope the supermarkets in Australia find a better balance than in the US – otherwise I will have no choice but to keep struggling with the bar codes.

9 Responses to "Technology and ‘talking to the customer’"
  1. I take your point, but I actually like the self checkout experience.

    In terms of market, you’re ignoring the fact that many supermarkets have cut back staff to the point that you wait a significant time to get to the checkout.

    To give you an example: I have two local Woolworths. One has self checkout, one doesn’t (both are in within 1km of where I live.)

    The one without has a significant opportunity cost due to only 1-2 people ever being on the checkouts, and always suffering long queues. The other Woolworths I can quickly (usually with no delay) check my groceries out.

    I’d rather the opportunity to check my own groceries out than to wait a significant time for a person to do so.  

  2. There are ways to do self checkout right and ways to do it wrong.  I’m in the US and in my area most self checkouts are only good for a few things.  You can’t do a whole shopping trip because there just isn’t room.  There is one store where they have a self checkout that will work with a large amount of groceries has a conveyor belt that takes the groceries through a scanner to verify you’re putting the right thing through.  Even then, it would really only save time if you have someone to scan and someone to bag.
    Our grocery store has something better but requires a certain amount of trust.  We can scan our groceries as we shop.  At the end, we go to a special check out lane and the computer pulls up everything we scanned.  We can enter coupons and then we pay, using cash or a credit card.  Random people are picked for an audit to ensure that everything in the cart has been scanned.  The store has one employee for 6 of those lanes.  That actually saves time and is a worthy use of technology.

  3. I don’t really care who serves me, as long as it is done quickly. That’s the customer experience I’m seeking from a supermarket.

    Self-checkouts drive me crazy because they are ridiculously slow – you have to pick up one item, scan it, and place it in the bag before you can scan the next one. Then there’s the slow, unresponsive touch screens. I understand the reasoning behind the one-item-at-a-time process, but I could probably get out in a quarter of the time if the system allowed me to work at a decent pace. However, as my local Woolworths generally only has 1, maybe 2, regular checkouts open at a time, and very rarely are they express lanes (I’m in there almost every day for a few items), it’s still quicker to use self-checkout.

    If I go to the Coles that’s a bit further away, it’s about 50/50. There’s usually several checkout people and short queues, so I normally go for a regular checkout, unless there’s no queue for self-service, making that option quicker overall. Plus I don’t mind their self-service system as much, seems to work better than Woolworths.

  4. For what should apparently be a fairly mature technology they are remarkably poorly implemented (at least at the Safeway ones, I haven’t used them elsewhere). Everything is slow and they seem to be set up as if with every scan you are trying to cheat the store. Try buying a hot chicken at Safeway without setting off the weight alert.

  5. I wonder if they could get away without weighing the goods and make these checkouts more efficient.
    How high could the theft rate be on these items?  I mean currently you can just choose not to bag items or stick them in your bag before putting it on the scale.
    Alternatively, they could adopt longer conveyor belts with seated attendents (like aldi) who don’t bag.
    I’ve always thought that anti-theft measures (even for our homes) are suboptimal financially because of a fear factor.  Fortress homes to me signal that there is stuff worth stealing, thereby increasing the likelihood of attempted thefts, and it makes homeowners less vigilent about the storage of their valuables in the home.
    In supermarkets, the attendent at self-checkouts is probably not concerned about people stealing, since the ‘system’ will prevent that.  But if there was no system, potential thieves might be warying of being observed by the attendent.

  6. the major reason why banks put branches back on the ‘list’ is that bank staff can ‘sell ‘more products. Supermarkets are finding out the same thing.

  7. i prefer the self check out “no customer service” to the 15 year old with attitude normal service. Even if ignore the irritating teen infront of me rather than have the awkward conversation with someone with a “promising career” in retail, I have the awkward silence of not talking to someone while the bag my groceries. Viva la self check out.

  8. overshooting and then correcting sounds like a reasonable course of action for changes whose effect only becomes clear in the long term. you probably can’t measure effects like “lack of talking to the customer” in a pilot or limited deployment which may be overshadowed by the novelty.

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