Monday, July 2, 2007

Self Checkout Lanes: Utterly Useless, But There’s Still Hope

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

self checkout can still be saved

More and more supermarkets these days are installing those technological marvels known as self checkout lanes. Stores love self checkouts because they get to replace staff attendants with cold, unfeeling computer systems. Shoppers like the idea of them because it offers a way to bypass long cashier-operated checkouts lanes. I like the idea because hot computer women voices turn me on. (“Please place your… apples… on the belt.” Aww yee-ah. Giggity.)

In reality, the implementation of self checkout lanes has been a horrendous failure on par with other technological disasters like Chernobyl or the Sony PlayStation 3. The reasons for the abysmal downfall of self checkout lanes can be seen by walking into any store sporting them:

  • Always too few or too many. I have yet to see a single supermarket or chain store with the right number of self checkouts. Quite often they are placed in stores with plenty of cashiers, sempiternal short lines, or merchandise that doesn’t lend itself to self checking out. More frequently, they’re simply converted from existing cashier-manned checkout lanes in stores with perpetually long customer queues, a terrible idea because…
  • Most people take longer in self checkouts to complete their transactions than in cashier-operated lanes. It’s true. I’ve timed it while waiting in long supermarket lines, and you can make the same observations for yourself. But why are self checker outers slower? The rest of the reasons explain why, starting with…
  • Customer technical incompetence. I’m sure I could find a nicer label to assign to the idiots who think they know what they’re doing in a self checkout lane. All too often, Grandma No-Computer pulls her cart into a self checkout lane and brings it to a screeching halt as she tries to figure out what to do with her bag of oranges. Even computer-minded folks often fumble around in self checkouts, but more often that’s due to…
  • Grossly poor self checkout designs. Cashier-manned checkout lanes have an efficient order to them: you place your items on a conveyor belt while waiting in line, the cashier scans and bags them and places them in your cart, you pay, and you get out of the way. Most self checkouts have no conveyor belt leading up to the scanner, so you have to remove each item from your cart as you’re checking out. Then you must either bag each item individually or place them on a conveyor belt to be bagged later (almost always by you). And I can almost guarantee that you do not bag as well or as quickly as an experienced cashier. And heaven forbid you have coupons or are paying with cash because it often takes a self checkout newbie ten minutes to find the slot for those. And while you’re designing the world’s worst computer system, you might as well make sure that…
  • Things break way too easily. There’s usually a “call a staff member” button on the computer screen in case you need assistance during your self checkout transaction. I’m pretty sure this button gets pushed every other transaction at my local supermarket. Whether it’s an incorrect price, accidentally double-scanned item, or some other abnormality in the checkout process, you’ll have to wait anywhere from 10 seconds to many minutes for help to arrive. On a couple of occasions, I’ve accepted an incorrectly scanned price and forfeited 10-50 cents because I knew it would take 5 minutes for someone to come and fix the price. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and I bet stores know it and love it.

From all this, you might think the best course of action on the self checkout front would be to completely remove them from the face of the Earth, and you’d be right. Alas, despite all the reasons you now have to hate them, stores have no reason not to love self checkout lanes. Instead, the whole idea of self checkout should be redesigned from scratch.

Building a Better Self Checkout

With a little bit of technology and a lot of process changes, self checkouts could be brought up to the same level of efficiency as human-operated checkout lanes. Let’s take a look at how an ideal self checkout system should be run.

  • Eligibility requirements. Right now, the number one reason that self checkouts don’t work is because of that genius in front of you trying to find the barcode to scan on the banana. I don’t know what it is, but self checkouts seem to draw large numbers of people who don’t know how to use them. Establishing some sort of barrier to entry–DMV-style qualification tests, proof of computer ownership, knowledge that bananas don’t have barcodes–would keep the dummies in the full service checkouts where they belong and move things along quicker for you.
  • Frequent user lines. The more you use a self checkout system, the better you’ll get at it. Once you’ve self checkout’d 20 times, you get promoted to the league of Self Checkout Masters who get to use the exclusive Masters-only self checkout lane. Use that lane 50 times and they’ll tell you what the supermarket ground beef is really made out of.
  • Improved technology. Self checkouts are meant to replicate every aspect of a regular checkout experience including conveyor belts, scanners, and bagging. The only thing missing is the cashier; in its place is you. Unfortunately replacing somebody who does grocery checkout for a living with someone who’d rather be doing anything else is going to slow down the whole process. Technology to the rescue! Replace those manual scanners and fumbling for barcodes with automated systems that scan your items as they move down the conveyor. Once scanned, an army of robots bags your purchases and loads them into your cart.
  • Take the line out of checking out. If you’re lucky enough to have a Bloom supermarket near you, then you may have already tried out their personal scanners, small gun-like devices that you carry with you around the store. You scan and bag each item as you shop, leaving only a quick trip to the checkout kiosk once you have all of your items. Without the line, self checkouts only take as long as you take to shop.
  • No cash accepted at self checkouts. Credit-only self checkouts would keep away the grannies and make the dropped penny delays a thing of the past.

Until some of these changes become reality, you’re best off going through the cashier-operated lanes. Or better yet, skip the stores and order your groceries online for home delivery. Trust me, it’s worth the extra few bucks for the delivery fee.

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