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Bagging It

Many grocers are considering taking away self-checkout lanes. Is it too soon to give up?



Almost everyone’s got some horror story about using the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. The time when you forgot you had a six-pack in your cart and had to wait five minutes for someone to come over and check your ID. The produce code you couldn’t find (on the head of romaine lettuce or when you used the “Look up Code” button on their computer system). Or the 74 times your kid touched the scanner/scale, causing the whole system to shut down with an error message: “Unexpected item. Wait for assistance.”

Waiting. Errors. Waiting. I thought this was supposed to be convenient, not to mention wave-of-the-future-esque? Well, calm down. You might not even have the option of self-checkout in the near future.

A study by the Food Marketing Institute (Arlington, Va.) found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes ¬– a decline from a high of 22 percent three years ago. In fact, shoppers say they’re more satisfied with their grocery shopping experience when they use traditional cashier-staffed lanes.

So 10 years after introducing this modern convenience, some grocers are ready to bag it.

Big Y Foods, which operates more than 60 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, is phasing out the self-serve lanes. Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC has reduced its unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes. Kroger (Cincinnati), on the other hand, says it’s staying with them because customers like it, according to an Associated Press article.

While self-serve lanes were supposed to be a bonus to shoppers, allowing us to scan, bag and pay for our items quickly and without hassle (while offering retailers anticipated labor savings), the reality has been short of perfect. Some shoppers embraced them while others were confused, annoyed, angered. That, in turn, annoyed the guy behind them, patiently waiting for his turn to scan a loaf of bread and milk and get out the door in less than five minutes.


My point is that it’s the implementation – not the technology – that needs the help here. We keep hearing that in-store technology is great as long as you make it seamless for the shopper. That means better signage at the scanner so it’s intuitive where I put my coupons, scan my loyalty card and pay. Also, have an employee (ideally, even several) standing there alert and ready to help me at a moment’s notice. And keep those traditional lanes open, especially during peak hours on a busy weekend. It’s about knowing your shoppers, their traffic patterns and how to staff your store.

For me, I want self-serve when I’m running in for an item or two but I want a traditional lane on a Sunday afternoon for my weekly stock-up. You’ve given me a taste of convenience – now make it better.



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