Gotcha! The Problems With Self-Service Checkout Systems

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-02-05 Print this article Print

Self-service checkout systems have to be flawless. It only takes one bad experience to create an an ex-customer.

Self-checkout terminals are increasingly employed by retailers—particularly grocers. But many consumers remain unconvinced about the convenience of checking themselves out. How well an organization fields the technology can make the difference between whether customers walk away from the experience enthusiastic or discouraged.

Problem: Erroneous or missing data can be a show-stopper for a self-service consumer.

Resolution: Iron out the kinks at manned cash registers, before you open up self-checkout lanes. Self-checkout scanners read a bar code on every product; and for every bar code there's a price in the store database. "It's a lot easier for a cashier to overcome a 'not on file' error than it is for a self-service [customer]," says Dusty Lutz, product manager for NCR's FastLane self-checkout systems.

Analyze also how well the technology will fit into existing store operations, says Roy A. Garver, a consultant who has been involved in self-checkout implementations at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Home Depot and other companies. Retailers that fail to make that effort upfront will suffer through more problems after the technology is deployed, Garver says—and in the process will damage the customers' perceptions of the technology.

Problem: Ease-of-use is critical—and largely under the control of the vendor.

Resolution: Do everything possible to make your consumer's first encounter positive.

"It only takes one bad experience to turn a user into a non-user of self-service," NCR's Lutz says. Consumers who become confused or embarrassed about their inability to complete a transaction may never come back.

Stores can make systems friendlier with clear signs describing the steps in the process—particularly those steps that aren't obvious, such as placing produce on a scale during checkout.

Jakob Nielsen, a human-factors designer, says brick-and-mortar stores ought to offer more clues as to how things work. But sometimes the physical design of a checkout unit undermines the application, he says. "Like the screen will say, 'Press "OK"' to complete your purchase,' but there's no 'OK' button—it says 'Yes' or 'Enter' instead."

Problem: Your operations may not work the way your customers do.

Resolution: Think through what the customer—and the system—has to do. Self-checkout requires each item to be individually scanned. Deli items will have to be identified by bar codes instead of hand scrawl. Shortcuts—such as scanning a single jar of baby food 20 times to represent 20 items—will have to be rethought. Project managers also will have to figure out how to handle coupons and loyalty-card discounts.

Problem: Don't let store personnel ignore customers in the self-service lane.

Resolution: Assign a friendly face to the technology, says Greg Buzek, principal analyst with IHL Consulting Group in Franklin, Tenn. Kroger employs some of its most experienced cashiers to greet customers, show them how to get through the process and overcome any snags.

Kate Delhagen, principal retail analyst at Forrester Research, is surprised more stores don't follow suit.

After all, showing customers how easy self-checkout can be is a good investment. "People don't like to feel stupid or [as if] they did something wrong," she says, so you have to get them over that hurdle.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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