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More Self-Checkout Is Coming, No Matter How Much You Hate It


More Self-Checkout Is Coming, No Matter How Much You Hate It

Rachel Wolfe

Nov 13, 2022

The self-checkout line can drive shoppers nuts, from frustrations looking up produce to accidental double-scans. 

In Chattanooga, Tenn., a flustered self-checkout experience and subsequent failure to double-bag led Tim Connon to lose half his Thanksgiving groceries to the parking-lot asphalt. “There’s a lot of people out there who say the customers can just replace the workers,” he says. “That’s not necessarily true. I’m exhibit A.”   

Despite bad vibes from some customers, automation at the supermarket has kicked into overdrive. More grocers installed the tech during the pandemic because of staffing issuesand some customers’ fears about interacting with more humans than necessary. While many are experimenting with new-age tech that aims to make the self-checkout process easier for shoppers, those upgrades are a long way from showing up at most local grocery stores.Self-checkout is nearly twice as widespread as it was before the pandemic, representing 30% of all grocery store transactions in 2021, according to an FMI-The Food Industry Association report released last week. That is up from 18% in 2018. The machines are now at 96% of the 38,000 retail stores (across 96 companies) the group surveyed.

Chains including Walmart Inc., the Kroger Co., Dollar General Corp. and Albertsons Cos. are piloting stores that offer only self-checkout lanes. Costco Wholesale Corp. recently brought the technology back to some of its locations after removing it in 2013.  

Target Corp. has ramped up its self-checkout offerings in recent years and now offers the tech in nearly all of its stores nationwide “to give more guests a fast and autonomous alternative,” a Target spokeswoman says. The company says it has increased staff at the same time. 

Southeastern Grocers, which owns Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie, has the machines in more than half of its stores. “Including self-checkouts in our stores is not due to labor concerns, but as an added benefit for our customers. Due to their positive response, we will continue to install them,” a spokeswoman says. 

With the turnover rate for grocery store employees in 2021 at 48%, down slightly from a record high in the prior year, according to FMI, industry experts believe grocers may have no choice but to expand their use in the coming months. 

“We don’t see the labor crisis coming to an end anytime soon,” says Mark Baum, who oversees industry relations for FMI. He adds that self-checkout machines, which cost anywhere from $14,000 to $40,000 to install, pay for themselves quickly. Stores usually only have one or two workers for every five to 10 machines, instead of one cashier per lane. 

Many shoppers wish that ratio were smaller. 

Two-thirds of shoppers say they have experienced a failure at a self-checkout lane, according to a 2021 survey of 1,000 people by technology company Raydiant. 

Mr. Connon of Chattanooga says he often has no choice but to use self-checkout at the Walmart where he usually buys groceries. So few cashier lanes are open when he goes in these days, he says, that lines often snake down half the store. 

The life insurance agency owner, 31, says he doesn’t mind the machines when he only has a few items. But during his pre-Thanksgiving shop last November he got frazzled by looking up half a dozen different types of produce and tracking down an employee to check his ID for wine. He forgot to double the overstuffed bags. 

Halfway to his car, one bag broke in the parking lot, shattering a bottle of wine and a jar of jam, and sending salad ingredients and a jar of peanut butter flying. He says he would find self-checkout more manageable if there were always employees near to offer assistance.

In Dallas, ​​Darren Grubb’s recent trip to Central Market took a turn for the worse when his 10-year-old son made the self-checkout decision for him. “He just grabbed a loaf of bread and ran over there,” Mr. Grubb says. 

The second item his son scanned, a package of fresh fish, rang up twice. Mr. Grubb flagged down an employee to void the purchase and decided to take over. He made the same mistake on a carton of milk. By the fourth time he needed a double-scanned item voided, he had made fast friends with the grocery store employee overseeing the self-checkout area. “I haven’t let my son come grocery shopping with me since,” he jokes. 

A Kroger store near Atlanta unveiled the first self-checkout machine back in 1986, industry analysts say. The technology hasn’t changed much since, says Jim Hertel, a food-retail analyst with Inmar Intelligence. 

Grocery stores once thought that self-checkout machines would be as convenient to use, and widely adopted, as ATMs. “Then they realized that ringing up groceries was a lot more complicated,” Mr. Hertel says.   

The machines were so widely avoided in the beginning, Mr. Hertel says, that some stores decided to dump them. Then the pandemic, and the resulting fears some shoppers had about interacting with other shoppers in line and with the cashier, led more stores to start offering them again. Now, amid the labor shortage, customers are stuck with self-checkout, he says. 

Futuristic technology that promises to improve the experience hasn’t yet been adopted widely, Mr. Baum of FMI says, but could become more prevalent in the coming years.

Smart carts that tally each item as you shop are now available at 3% of stores, FMI reports, and 19% of stores say they are planning to roll out the technology in 2022. “It’s kind of expensive, and there are all sorts of issues around physics and tech that have to mature before you see more of it,” Mr. Baum of FMI says. 

Texas-based chain H-E-B is testing a checkout device that scans an entire basket at once in a handful of its locations. 

Completely cashierless stores, meanwhile, still only make up 1% of grocery store retailers, down from 4% in 2020, according to FMI. (About 8% say they plan to try the tech in 2022.) 

The first Whole Foods that eschews checkout altogether for “Just Walk Out” technology that rings items up as you’re putting them into your cart opened in March in Washington, D.C. But Mr. Hertel thinks it will be a while before we see more of them. Buying enough of the lasers the stores rely on to see what’s in your cart is expensive, he says. Amazon Go stores are tiny (about 2,000 square feet) compared with a 50,000-square-foot grocery store, leaving more room for dead zones where lasers can’t reach. 

“I think the retailers who are really smart about it will invest in finally improving the consumer experience,” Mr. Hertel says.

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