In 1916, Clarence Saunders pioneered a new concept in the world of shopping – self-service. His retail store, Piggly Wiggly, allowed customers for the first time to select their own items by placing them in shopping baskets, instead of needing assistance from full-time service clerks. This model of shopping quickly became an international standard. Much in the same way, self-checkout is now quickly becoming a familiar sight across the world.
The trend towards automation and informal customer exchanges has been growing rapidly. You may have witnessed it yourself at your local grocery store. A growing number of retail businesses are incorporating self-checkout stations as part of the customer shopping experience. With the promise of lower labor costs and increased efficiency, the advantages are evident. However, the increased depersonalization of retail shopping may also have certain disadvantages for customers and businesses alike.
The advantages of self-checkout for businesses are multifaceted. For businesses, labor costs can be significantly lowered. For example, instead of requiring numerous human serviced cashier stations, a single manager can oversee several different self-checkout kiosks. Self-checkout stations can also offer a strategic advantage for businesses. They can be placed throughout a store to offer quick and convenient checkout, rather than being placed at the very front end of a store. This way, customers are less likely to abandon their carts or change their minds about a purchase as a result of being funneled to a single location in the store.
For customers, self-checkout stations typically result in shorter wait times. The convenience of a quick checkout process, especially with fewer items, and the appeal of zero human interaction is a dream for introverts. Even though problems can arise, self-checkout provides a way to skip the line entirely and grab the items you need without the need for assistance.
Despite the perceived benefits of self-checkout stations, there are also drawbacks. According to some statistics, the rate of shoplifting has increased as a result of self-checkout stations at retail locations. The temptation to scan those organic cherries as regular grapes is too great for some. According to Voucher Codes Pro, 20% of people surveyed admitted to having stolen an item through the self-checkout experience. In 2014, data gathered by the Telegraph reports that self-service theft at supermarkets in the United Kingdom accounts for £1.6 billion worth of items, roughly $1.97 billion USD. An increase in shoplifting could result in higher prices on items for everyone else.
Additionally, for a lot of people, the dehumanization of the shopping experience can be a turnoff. For less tech-savvy people, self-checkout presents a challenge. Some customers simply prefer the one-on-one experience at the checkout station and the personalized touch. Some companies have attempted to remedy this by “humanizing,” self-service kiosks, even going as far as implementing an Elvis impersonator voice for their machines.
Moving forward, the future of self-service stations is still ambiguous. Customer experience data is still relatively fresh and despite companies such as Amazon betting that automation is the path forward, there could be potential drawbacks that might limit this latest shopping innovation. A lack of personalization, negative customer service, and technical difficulties could disillusion customers and lead to blowback.