The unpopular rise of self-checkouts (and how to fix them)
It’s a machine that many people love to hate. What will it take to improve the experience of the self-checkout?
By Adriana Hamacher
May 10 2017
On the self-select screen of bakery items before me, the difference was just 50p (65 cents) between a plain croissant and an almond one. While I struggled to identify baked goods, juggling my already half-full shopping bag (placing it on the machine had already once sent it into meltdown), at least three people had sailed through the human-operated checkout. I was flustered, I was annoyed. The almonds had nearly all fallen off anyway.
Retailers tell us that self-checkouts are all about providing more choice, convenience and speed, and some consumers may embrace the shorter queues they can bring. However, it can be very frustrating when they go wrong. One (admittedly unscientific) 2014 poll found that 93% of people dislike them. What’s more, they even drive some shoppers to theft.
So what’s the story behind the proliferation of these machines? And what can be done to improve our experience of using them?
It all started with the automated teller machine, first invented in London 50 years ago, in 1967. A few decades later, the self-service till was invented by David R Humble, inspired by standing in a long grocery checkout line in south Florida in 1984. The tills became popular in the 1990s. By 2013, there were over 200,000 in stores throughout the world and their numbers are expected to reach 325,000 by 2021.
At some stores, there may be no more than one checkout manned by a human
It’s easy to see why they’re so popular with vendors: having customers do some work themselves means less overhead. At airport check-in, for instance, the cost to process a passenger through an electronic terminal (14 cents) is a fraction of what it costs the airline with a staffed desk ($3).
But what’s the benefit for consumers? If there are five self-checkouts to choose from instead of queuing for one human being, clearly they will reduce waiting time. However, if the shops employed five more staff, the experience could be quicker. As part of her campaign to curb the increasing dependence on self-checkouts, journalist and BBC broadcaster Jenni Murray timed how long it took to buy the same items at both staffed and self-service tills in eight major shops. In every instance, the staff checkout was faster. Her anecdotal experiment did include verification-needed items, but she’s not the only one to come to this conclusion.
So, no faster then. No problem, say retail experts and suppliers, thanks to a handy phenomenon known as “wait-warping”: when you’re more actively involved in the transaction, it appears to progress quicker. How very convenient: for the retailers.
But not all shoppers are fooled, so vendors have invested in plenty of strategies to increase our liking for self-service. A popular tactic is to position the tills closer to the exit, providing the subtle suggestion that your transaction will be faster.