Self-checkout has been part of the grocery landscape since 1986 when Kroger installed them in several stores. Back then, customers scanned their items and put them on a conveyor belt. Employees then bagged the groceries, and customers went to a central cashier area to pay.
It took time before self-checkout stands really took off. The recession of 2001, combined with emerging superstores and warehouse clubs, pushed supermarkets to cut costs to remain competitive. However, surveys at the time found that customers didn't embrace them. A 2003 Nielson survey found that 52% thought checkout lanes were "OK," and 16% found them frustrating.
Some retailers, including Costco and Albertsons, actually removed their self-checkout lanes after a few years. Self-checkout was expected to save money and improve the customer’s shopping experience. In reality, it did neither.
Retailers were able to eliminate some tasks handled by their cashiers. However, the lanes required oversight and maintenance, often by more expensive IT professionals. It also led to more losses. Customer mistakes and attempts to steal caused an estimated 77% increase in losses. Despite all its challenges, self-checkout is seemingly in more stores than ever.
Supermarkets all over the world are adding more self-checkout lanes. Costco and Albertson’s brought it back, and innovators like Walmart and Kroger are testing exclusive self-checkout stores.
The promise of self-checkout is powerful. By limiting the number of cashiers in their stores, supermarkets can save on labor costs, increase their sales floor area, and check out more customers faster. These operational efficiencies and cost savings are a powerful draw for an industry that relies on paper-thin profit margins.
Customers also benefit from self-checkout lanes. They have more control over their shopping experience and increased privacy over their purchases.
Unfortunately, many of these promises are still unfulfilled.
Many self-checkout lanes have longer lines than those that are operated by a cashier. Customers aren't as fast or trained in scanning. It takes more time to find the correct codes for produce, meat, or bakery goods that need to be weighed.
Many theft detection tools rely on weighing items after they are scanned. These tools trigger multiple false positives, leaving customers to wait around for employees to look at their bags and swipe a security badge.
All these delays contribute to longer lines and frustrated consumers. It also requires more employees to monitor the area, eliminating some of the expected cost savings benefits.
Self-checkout lanes never thought to reinvent the checkout experience. The overall process largely remained the same. It simply took trained employees and replaced them with untrained customers.
Smart carts, however, have the potential to be a real game changer in the checkout process. Items get scanned as they are placed in bags within the cart. When the shopping trip is over, consumers don’t need to remove anything from their cart. Depending on the system, they can either pay directly on their cart or use a payment kiosk.
Smart carts eliminate lines, and don’t simply move friction in the user experience to somewhere new. After completing their shopping, customers can walk out of the store, put their grocery bags in their car, and drive home.
The smart cart fully delivers on the promise of self-checkout, delivering operational savings while improving the customer experience.