Earlier today I read an article in The Grocer that highlighted the findings of an online survey saying that 73% of supermarket customers are shunning self-service checkouts.

Really? That many people really don't like them? Why?!

Admittedly, a few years ago when the technology was relatively young, self-service checkouts were temperamental to say the least. Items not recognised by the scanners, scales not registering items in the bagging area, or interfaces that were just too difficult for customers to use.

Over the years, however, the technology has improved considerably and self-service checkouts are probably at their easiest to use.

I personally love to use self-service checkouts wherever possible, especially when I'm having one of those days we all get where you just don't want to talk to anyone, you don't even want to raise a smile, yet you've got to go and get some essentials from the supermarket. Self-service is a perfect solution.

Do I really love all self-service systems?

Pretty much. The only self-service checkout system I despise is in Morrisons where I find their system just totally frustrating and out of all the systems I've tried, theirs is undoubtedly the worst.

To me the interface is clunky, the bagging area scales unresponsive unless you drop/throw/push items onto it with force, and as for that voice. Grrrr. The system doesn't have to tell you to "put the item in to the bag" after every single item, once or twice is enough at the beginning, then give it a rest.

Even better, why not learn from other systems, like Tesco's or Sainsbury's where the kiosk only gives step-by-step instructions if you press the Start button at the beginning of the transaction or have a delay. Repeatedly stating that the item needs to be put down or an assistant needs to be called because you didn't do anything for five seconds doesn't help.

What they giveth, they taketh away...

When Somerfield relocated in Aberystwyth to a new store, four self-service checkouts were installed, and they were great. They gave you the ability to get on with things, without the annoying banter from any of the checkout operators (well, one in particular), and they were even better if you just had one or two items. You could be in, paid for and out again in under two minutes.

Sometimes the receipts did raise a smile on my face as I left. Instead of the checkout operator's name, the receipt was printed with something like "Today you used Robot Jenny" or one of the other three names they had. Sounds dirty. You used Robot Jenny. You fiend!

You may notice, though, I've used the past-tense there. I don't know why, but self-service was removed within a year of installation.

Was it really because people weren't using them? Doubt it, they were usually busy all the time. Was it the equipment? Perhaps - towards the end there was usually at least one that was out of service.

Was it the staff? Hmmm, tricky one.

The difficult balance between staff and machine

The four self-service checkouts were supervised from a monitor at the end of the block of tills. One member of staff was, in theory, able to manage the self-service tills, deal with customer queries, perform overrides for age checks and problem items, and make sure everything was running smoothly.

That was, of course, when they were there and not wandering off to chat with other staff, customers or sending a cheeky text in the corner. In the meantime you're stood there like a lemon with a red flashing light above your head as you wait for an age verification override.

I was hoping that following The Co-operative's acquisition of Somerfield, and the conversion of the Aberystwyth store to a Co-Op, self-service would make a return. But it sadly didn't.

The staffing of self-service checkouts is actually an interesting point. Some supermarkets have a dedicated person on the monitoring station to assist customers - the ideal situation where problems can be dealt with quickly.

Some, especially in smaller stores or where the layout permits, has the monitoring station on a neighbouring manned checkout. From there a member of staff is able to serve at a traditional checkout whilst monitoring and assisting customers using self-service. A reasonable solution as long as neither the self-service or staff assisted customer are kept waiting.

Others have the general supervisor / go-fer patrolling the checkouts and monitoring the self-service at the same time. By far this is the worst solution, yet it's one that I'm seeing more and more of. Customers are left waiting at self-service with their red lights flashing whilst the checkout operator on checkout six can't get a packet of bacon to scan and the go-fer goes off to check the PLU.

And it's not just having the staff there, it's making sure they know how to operate the system inside and out and giving them proper training on how to deal with the customers using them. If something goes wrong, don't imply the customer's at fault or belittling them, be as friendly as you would be at a staffed checkout.

My partner, a Welsh speaker, used a self-service checkout in a Pembrokeshire Tesco store. Being as it isn't a particularly Welsh-speaking area the assistant, on hearing the kiosk giving out instructions yn Gymraeg, came over and said - almost smirking - "did you mean to choose Welsh?". When he was told "Yes" he went away rather sheepishly.

So...

Are self-service checkouts really hated by customers? I doubt it. But there's lots of things supermarkets can do to make sure they're successful rather than just plonking the kiosks there and letting people get on with it, and getting the staffing (levels and training) right is key.

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