March 22, 2024

Self-Checkout Backlash

Self-Checkout Backlash

Target just announced it’s limiting self-checkout purchases to 10 items or less to reduce long lines—and a number of other big retailers are putting limits on how they use what was once seen as a panacea for the industry. Walmart has removed self-checkout machines from some stores, Dollar General is now converting many terminals from self-checkout to “assisted” checkout, Costco is staffing up in the self-checkout area, and Wegman’s has discontinued a self-checkout app, citing losses.

Self-checkout has always had naysayers. Many people just prefer going through a traditional checkout line with cashiers they can talk to. In this case, though, most of the retailers pulling back started out as champions. The idea was that self-checkout would help retailers cope with ongoing labor shortages and give the existing staff time to provide better customer service—becoming to retail what ATMs were to banks.

As often happens in business, however, the laws of unintended consequences kicked in despite well-thought-out strategic plans and troubleshooting. Stores that added the machines began seeing long lines, as shoppers tried to remember if they bought the regular bell peppers or organic and navigated menus full of codes. Beyond that, self-checkout made it easier for shoplifters to cheat a system already coping with steep losses from theft. And they often required a lot of support from the existing teams if the machines malfunctioned.

That said, it’s unlikely that backlash will mean these machines will go away any time soon. Marcum works with many retail clients, and there aren’t any indicators that labor shortages and high turnover in the industry are going away. Supermarkets and Big Box stores will need some way to handle the high volume of transactions without the large teams of the past. Nonetheless, more retailers will now have to come up with a 2.0 version of how they use self-checkout, based on the on-the-ground learning that has taken place during what has been a vast experiment with the technology. And the makers of these machines will need to solve for some of the glitches, like those automated voices asking you to remove unknown items from the bagging area when all you put there was your shopping bag. That will bring opportunity to those who design the best machines.

Maybe the answer to the backlash will be something along the lines of Amazon Go stores, where shoppers with the appropriate app just gather what they want to buy, exit the stores, and find it charged to their Amazon account later. Amazon is still going strong with these futuristic shops, with more than 25 in the U.S., including grocery stores.

And those stores will probably look quaint someday. It’s only a matter of time before some Silicon Valley startup figures out how to send groceries to our homes the moment we start to think about what to have for dinner. I’ve always loved technology, so I look forward to seeing what the computer science crowd comes up with. Hopefully, whatever that looks like, it’ll bring shorter lines.

Tuesday was the first day of Spring, which means there are a number of holidays ahead. Saturday marks the start of Purim, a holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jewish people. To all who observe, happy Purim. Sunday is Palm Sunday, a Christian feast that takes place the Sunday before Easter, beginning the Holy Week for Christians. Happy Palm Sunday to those who celebrate.