Switchable Grocery Checkout Lanes: The Complications Aren't Obvious

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The U.K.'s second-largest grocer is experimenting with checkout lanes that can quickly be switched from cashier-staffed to self-service. The 520-store Asda chain, which is owned by Walmart, is expanding a one-store trial of the quick-switch lanes to four stores and reporting that a "surprisingly high" percentage of customers are choosing to use the new lanes.

At first glance, this looks likely only to expand the problems self-checkout already generates: theft, slowdowns when associates have to verify age for alcohol or tobacco, and equipment that's simply frustrating to customers. But opening up all unstaffed lanes as self-checkouts might actually make self-checkout work better.

The chain's hope is that the hybrid lanes will make it possible to have all lanes open all the time—just not necessarily staffed. In a typical Asda superstore that has more than 30 lanes installed, the number staffed with a cashier may be a dozen or less. Turning all lanes into hybrids would dramatically increase the number of self-checkout spots, without losing the ability to open a staffed lane at any time.

"So far it's proving effective in reducing queues and improving service levels during extra-busy times in the store," an Asda spokeswoman told U.K. trade magazine The Grocer. "The concept is to provide customers with a checkout that is always available."

But there are interesting differences between a conventional self-checkout setup and these hybrid lanes. For one, all the things customers miss with a self-checkout area (with the obvious exception of the human cashier) can return. Racks of impulse items? Check. Room for a full-size cart? Check. Slightly easier control of children? Check. No limit on the number of items it's practical to check out with? Check.

In fact, for some customers a hybrid lane that's serving as a self-checkout may be the best of both worlds. With enough hybrid lanes open, a customer could afford to take her time, change her mind or leave briefly to collect another item. Juggling checkout and kids becomes slightly easier when there's no impatient line backed up—with enough lanes open, waiting customers can switch easily.

And some customers will be happier without as many prying eyes around when they're making purchases where they'd prefer a little privacy. That privacy will have to be an illusion, of course—the classic self-checkout problem of customers neglecting to scan some items isn't going to go away. And for the hybrid lanes, cameras will have to fill in for an associate hovering around the self-checkout area.

Unfortunately, cameras can't replace the other functions of that self-checkout associate, like age verification and dealing with pricing discrepancies.Unfortunately, cameras can't replace the other functions of that self-checkout associate. Those include age verification and dealing with items that scan with a different price from the shelf tag, but become even more important when the technology just doesn't do what the customer expects.

For example, big-ticket, full-cart shoppers who haven't spent much time doing self-checkout because they've always had too many items could be in for a shock. Coupons may or may not be supported at self-checkout. If they are, figuring out why a particular coupon has been rejected is often a challenge for experienced cashiers, never mind self-service newbies.

Wrinkled barcode labels on vegetables or flexible packaging are a problem for human cashiers, as well, but they have the experience to know when to quit and key in the number. Dropping that problem on inexperienced customers could generate a whole new level of frustration. Double-scanned items and the need for overrides have the potential to push confusion and irritation even higher—something that's already a problem with conventional self-checkout.

And then there's intentional vandalism. And customers who unintentionally damage equipment with spills, for example, but then don't clean up or call for help out of embarrassment. Even without damage, some customers are simply messy. (How often do you hear "Clean up in aisle 5?" That's about how often you can expect to hear "Clean up on lane 23" going forward.)

Even without messy customers, all horizontal scanning windows require occasional wiping down or performance degrades. Human cashiers do that routinely. If some associate isn't handling that task, the hybrid checkout won't stop working—it will just begin to work poorly, and customers like intermittent problems just about as well as IT people do.

All that comes down to a simple reality: Asda has tested with four hybrid checkout lanes. When it expands to dozens of lanes, there will still have to be an associate nearby to help—but that associate might be 20 lanes away instead of a few steps away. This isn't going to save nearly as much in associate time as Asda—or the chain's owner Walmart—might hope.

Some of the problems might go away with a switch from barcodes to RFID tags for product identification. That likely won't happen soon enough to affect Asda's ongoing implementation of hybrid lanes or any decision by Walmart to try it in its own stores.

In the meantime, this is clearly not something grocery chains can afford to think of as just more self-service lanes. If customers like them, this could wipe out most of the assumptions chains have depended on about self-checkout.

Not to mention some associates who are going to get a lot more exercise.