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5 Unintended Consequences of Self-Checkout

Alice Chan May 24, 2022 8:45:00 AM
Has self-checkout only increased the level of frustration experienced by shoppers?

I recently returned to the U.S. from a long overdue trip to the U.K. to visit family, and on my travels dropped into a few supermarkets, airports and train station stores—and even a farm store. Being in retail tech, I’ve become a bit of a nerd when it comes to ‘checking out’ approaches to checkout. What struck me was the prevalence of self-checkout and what a painful, friction-filled experience it is. 

These self-checkout terminals are in all types of stores across England, and what’s clear is that they have only increased the level of frustration experienced by shoppers. In fact, those levels of irritation have increased so much that there is now a petition signed by over 115,000 U.K. shoppers begging national grocery chain, Tesco, to bring back its cashiers. The petition argues that with self-service terminals the shopper has to put their shopping in the cart, unpack it, load it onto a static belt, scan it, move it onto a packing area, pay for it and then lift it out of the packing area and load it back into the cart. All that’s missing is the free uniform and the paycheck. 

This got me thinking about all the unintended consequences of self-checkout. No doubt it was introduced as a way to help shoppers speed through checkout, while saving retailers some money on labor. So how have we landed in a place where it’s so clearly doing the opposite? Here are five reasons that self-checkout doesn’t work.


1. Shopper Rage

Okay, rage may be a bit strong, but let’s be honest—no-one wants to spend their Sunday waiting 15 minutes for an over-taxed sales clerk to come reset your self-checkout terminal because you either put something outside of the bagging area, didn’t realize you were at a cash-only register, or wanted to buy a bottle of wine. Tempers can start fray quickly when the technology starts to look like a better option for the retailer than for the shopper.


2. More Shrinkage

I was pretty surprised to see that all shoppers are now blatantly videoed at the self-checkout kiosk. It’s clear that shrinkage or, to call it what it is, theft, has only increased with self-checkout, damaging retailers’ already thin margins. Recent research in the U.K. showed as much as a 125% increase in shrinkage compared to traditional checkouts.


3. No privacy

The net result of this heavily monitored self-checkout lane is that shoppers are increasingly finding themselves on camera the whole time they are completing their purchases. The discomfort of this invasive surveillance is barely worth the (in)convenience of scanning your own groceries.


4. Being an unpaid employee

In what I call ‘the tyranny of technology,’ this supposed convenience is actually creating more work for the customer. Instead of standing in line enjoying today’s Wordle, or flicking through People magazine, while the checkout person gets to grips with scanning and bagging your shopping, you, the shopper, has to get busy. 


5. More lines

Rather than reducing lines, self-checkout has generated longer, more disorganized lines as all the kiosks are clustered together. And, because so many things tend to go wrong during the checkout process, shoppers inevitably end up waiting for a staff member to help them with their purchases, extending the time it takes to get out of the store and on with their day.

In response to these issues, we are seeing innovators trying to improve the self-checkout experience, with everything from AI-powered carts that tally up the cost of goods, to cameras that take a photo of what’s on your tray at a self-service restaurant. But from our perspective, improving something that’s truly broken is not even an incremental improvement. That’s why at Zippin we conceived of a big step change: a completely different future where you don’t have to use a cart, stand in line, or even put your hand in your pocket to leave, truly taking the friction out of shopping.

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