Overseas Self-Checkout Pockets Going Well Beyond U.S.

As U.S. retailers struggle to get customers to use self-checkout lanes and to manage the process, overseas merchants are moving well into Self-Checkout Phase Two, with digital cameras used to identify foods by comparing items with an image database and making self-checkout theft much more challenging with multi-chute fully automated tunnels.

Even using consumer mobile phones as handheld self-scanning devices—championed by Germany's Metro Group—has picked up European momentum, threatening to eventually out-tech and potentially replace some self-checkout options.

Still, those technological trendsetters are found in pockets throughout Europe, Asia and Australia, with most overseas retailers still slow to embrace self-checkout, according to a new report from London-based analyst group Planet Retail.

"The fully automated tunnel scanners, which have attracted the likes of Aldi, Casino, Tesco and Schwarz Group, have not even left the laboratories of developers such as Scangineers and Wincor Nixdorf," wrote Retail Technology Analyst Björn Weber. "Furthermore, although Metro Group is currently piloting mobile phones as self-scanning devices in its Real Future Store in Tönisvorst, Germany, the technology is still at a very early stage of development."

Weber describes one of the most interesting applications being explored, namely the fully automated tunnel scanner, as being in response to things that have discouraged some consumers from even trying the machines.

"The irritating 'red alerts' and the warning voice notice—'unexpected item in the baggage area'—can alienate first-time users," Weber said. "These machines often require staff assistance and cannot solve minor problems without the help of an employee."

Dutch start-up company Scangineers tried to craft a different approach. "After scanning an item, the customer places it on a conveyor belt, which will only begin to move if the embedded scales have measured the correct weight of the product," Weber said. "The conveyor then transports the item through a tunnel in which an infrared dimension control double-checks that only scanned items pass through it. After the belt, there are two chutes from which the customer can then pack purchases into his or her own bag or box."

The report details many of the key retailers and their self-checkout approaches, after pointing out that most of the largest American retailers—"with the remarkable exception of Target"—have embraced self-checkout. But the bulk of the rest of the world is more apprehensive. That said, for those merchants who have deployed, they are often exceeding their U.S. counterpart.

"Tesco has been one of the more active European retailers in terms of its rollout of self-checkouts. Today, more than 450 of Tesco's stores in the U.K. are equipped with NCR's Fastlane. The machines are also common at Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer in the U.K., but not in the rest of Europe," the report said. "By comparison, Carrefour, Auchan and Metro Group have each installed stationary self-checkouts at between 30 and 60 stores in their respective home markets. In the U.K., Tesco has trial-ed a system in a few of its stores whereby self-service checkouts account for half of the tills in use. In London, for example, the high-traffic Bishopsgate Tesco Metro store is equipped with 20 compact-sized scan & bag machines and 20 manned tills. Variations, such as those developed by British DIY retailer B&Q together with Wincor Nixdorf, make self-checkout more deployable for purchases of larger items such as roof beams or cement bags."

The report also looked at the currency differences and their self-checkout impact. "In the U.S., U.K., the Netherlands and many parts of Scandinavia, more than 70 percent of transactions in retail outlets are cashless. However, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Republic of Ireland, Greece and CEE still use cash for most payments. In these markets, self-checkouts have to cope with a large amount of coins and notes," the report said. "Cash recycling machines have also been tested without the use of self-scanning devices at manned checkouts. Ahold-owned ICA in Norway and Shell forecourt stores in Germany are deploying Gunnebo and Wincor Nixdorf devices respectively. This equipment can protect the store against robberies and ensure that the cash at the tills is always balanced. The most impressive example of the deployment of such equipment has been in a Super U supermarket in Western France. Launched in February 2007, Alain Diserbeau, the owner of the 3,400 square metre Super U in Herbignac, equipped all 18 checkouts and the store's bakery with cash-recyclers from Wincor Nixdorf. Although the cashier still scans each item manually, staff are no longer required to handle cash because customers pay into the machines integrated in the desks."

Another self-checkout issue is the security issue and the always-popular-with-consumers tactic of periodic manual checks. One European retailer has tried a different tact.

"To get around the lengthy rescanning process, Albert Heijn in the Netherlands, with the help of new software, has reduced the rescanning process to a few items. For example, staff now only check high value products rather than re-scan the whole trolley. The software also chooses customers that should be re-scanned on the basis of their shopping history and, in the worst case scenario, on the basis of their shoplifting history," the report said. "Nevertheless, self-scanning without any form of re-scanning by employees is too risky for the retailer. Indeed, all grocery chains offering self-scanning with mobile devices limit the service to known customers, who identify themselves with a loyalty card. Although retailers claim that this is because handheld devices can be stolen, this policy has obviously been introduced to avoid shoplifting."

Weber argues that a typical response—attacking shrink by integrating more weight-check into mobile self-scanning—isn't always practical.

"It would be very expensive to equip every shopping trolley with scales that are radio-connected to the store network. A balance positioned in the floor at the point of payment to control the weight of the complete shopping trolley could be helpful," Weber wrote. "However, this solution may not make sense with the weight of lighter products, such as nylon stockings. Furthermore, the customer would have to convince any children sitting within the trolley to get out of their seat at the point of payment."