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Cashier or self-checkout? That’s the difficult question consumers often face when they finish shopping. The self-checkout line may be shorter, but given all the things that could go wrong, it may not be faster.

Retailers, looking to reduce labor costs, are determined to make that decision a lot easier.

The pandemic has helped. In 2020, shipments of self-checkout machines increased by 25% globally, as the pandemic prompted more shoppers to look for a way to avoid contact with other people, according to research and consulting firm RBR.

And there’s no question that the technology for self-checkout has improved over the years; shoppers are a lot less likely to get an “unexpected item in the bagging area," forcing them to wait for a store employee to clear the way for them to continue shopping. But the customer experience is still far from perfect. Customers may face delays due to difficult-to-scan items, an inability to find the code for a product they’re buying, or weighing errors that require an employee to fix. Other failure points include bagging and paying. In fact, in a survey of 2,000 shoppers and retailers by customer-experience-technology company Raydiant, 67% said they had experienced some form of failure at a self-service checkout.

“Most of the time when you go and utilize a self-checkout, there is an issue one way or another," says Max Hammond, a senior director at Gartner Inc., a research firm.

In their effort to address these issues, retailers and researchers have learned a lot about how things can go wrong with self-checkout, how consumers perceive the technology, and what retailers need to do to get more people to use it.

People are more willing to use self-checkout, but they can get easily turned off after a bad experience.

Recent surveys suggest customers are warming up to self-checkout machines. Before the pandemic, some 30% of consumers preferred using self-checkout, but that figure jumped to 45% in the first 18 months of the pandemic, according to Praveen Adhi, a partner at McKinsey who leads the firm’s retail-operations practice in the Americas. What’s more, the proportion of consumers who said they would be more likely to use self-checkout than before the pandemic rose to 36% in August 2021 from 27% in March 2020.

Still, if customers have a bad experience with self-checkout, they’re less likely to use it again. According to the Raydiant survey, 25% of the respondents said they wouldn’t use a self-service checkout if they had previously used the machines but they didn’t work. And so what the pandemic gave retailers, it could just as easily take away.

During Covid, “a lot of retailers and even hospitality and restaurant folks jumped the gun to quickly put [self-checkout] kiosks within their locations without really thinking about the customer experience and how to design that experience," says Bobby Marhamat, chief executive of Raydiant.

The user experience isn’t intuitive enough, especially for those less comfortable with technology.

“These solutions can be invariably clunky," says Mr. Hammond, “so it isn’t generally the easiest process for all consumers. Younger generations are clearly going to understand that a little bit more."

It’s often the little things that can make all the difference. Sometimes, for instance, customers aren’t aware an item has been scanned, because they don’t hear a sound confirming it. Or they have to keep turning an item so that the bar code registers with the scanner.

“Part of this is generational, and part of this is somebody being in a hurry," says Read Hayes, a criminologist at the University of Florida and director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, a retail-industry trade group. He says the machines need to evolve to a point where you don’t “have to wave something back and forth in front of the scanner several times."

Scanning takes too many steps.

While scanning nonperishable items with bar codes may go smoothly, customers can run into problems with items that don’t have bar codes—including produce—that require looking up codes and weighing items on a scale.

“There are certain items that are multiple keystrokes, like produce that the camera doesn’t recognize, and then you need to type in a number, and the number may or may not be there, and sometimes it’s just easier to have a store associate do that for you," says Sucharita Kodali, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

To address this issue, Toshiba, which makes self-checkout kiosks, says it’s working with retailers on computer-vision and artificial-intelligence-based tools to allow machines to more easily recognize difficult-to-scan items. Similarly, NCR Corp. offers software for self-checkout machines that uses computer-vision technology to identify produce that’s placed on the scale. It then brings up a shortlist of the most likely items from which the customer can choose.

Any problem can cause annoying delays.

Many retailers deploy staff members to host self-checkout lanes to troubleshoot problems as they arise. But as many shoppers know, these helpers can get overwhelmed, or may not notice a struggling shopper. So shoppers are left waiting for help to arrive.

If the self-checkout machine can be unlocked only by an associate, it can take about 30 to 60 seconds for the employee to come over and fix the problem, according to Mr. Adhi of McKinsey.

Manufacturers are trying to address this pain point by reducing the need for a staff member to be physically present at the self-checkout kiosk, according to NCR. For instance, shoppers could have the ability to remove products they had already scanned, or employees could have a mobile application that allows them to remotely clear a transaction on their phones.

Layout limitations can discourage self-checkout use.

Self-checkout machines are often positioned beside each other in a close, tight configuration, thereby discouraging customers from scanning large volumes of items, or goods that are typically too large for traditional self-checkout machines.

“The typical layout of a self-checkout area, as well as the, ‘Put your stuff here and bag it here,’ doesn’t work very well if you’ve got a lot of items, or you’ve got a couple kids with you," says Steve Dennis, president of SageBerry Consulting, a retail consulting firm. (According to Ms. Kodali of Forrester, self-checkout is optimal for a cart that has no more than 10 items.)

Some retailers, such as Home Depot, have tried to solve this problem with “scan guns." Others have suggested that the answer is a conveyor-belt-style setup that more closely resembles a staffed checkout station.

Toshiba says it is working with retailers to help them optimize their self-checkout stations. In addition, says Fredrik Carlegren, vice president of global marketing at Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions, the solution may lay outside the self-checkout area. “There are other ways throughout the store where you may want to repackage things and apply stickers and bar codes so that it’s easier to use and go through self-checkout," he says.

Many customers aren’t convinced there’s any value to them.

While use of self-checkout is increasing, getting the holdouts to agree to adopt it will mean ensuring there is an added benefit other than just doing the work that would otherwise be carried out by employees. Customers have to know that it’s going to be consistently faster, for instance, or that perhaps they can receive a discount for going the self-checkout route.

“The problem with self-service checkout is there is no benefit [to the consumer]—there’s only cost," says Ryan Buell, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Ultimately, all of this may be moot, and self-checkout will be a transition technology to something more like Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology. First launched for employees in 2016 and more broadly in 2018 and now used at dozens of Amazon’s stores in the U.S. and U.K.—as well as in 14 third-party stores—the technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves, and it keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When customers are finished shopping, they skip the checkout line and leave the store and are automatically charged.

Although experts say the technology is too costly for most large retail stores, Mr. Buell says that’s where retailers are heading eventually.

“When we think about where we deploy human capital, you don’t need people to do checkout," he says. “At scale, technology can do that job and can do that job well. I don’t think we will land in a place where technology does that job with the assistance of customers who are ill-equipped to do the job well."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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