Is Wegmans' Self-Checkout Trial Truly For Customer Service?

When supermarket chain Wegmans confirmed this month its first-ever self-checkout trial, it was billed as a customer service feature. That's technically true, but only in a very roundabout way.

A spokesperson for Wegmans, Jo Natale, is quoted as telling the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: "We were never in a rush to introduce self-checkout. We had never seen one we liked or offered features for customer convenience."

But she said that the chain reversed itself—at least for a trial—after requests from consumers who had tried self-checkout in other chains.

The implication in the customer service comment is that shoppers can get checked out more quickly with a self-service unit. That's actually not often the case.

What is true is that consumers often feel as though it takes less time because they're actively involved, but a trained cashier is typically much faster.

Also, so very much depends on that particular grocery purchase. Does it include any age-sensitive items, such as alcohol, tobacco, birth control, etc.? If so, self-checkout will be a lot slower. What about items that are difficult to scan? Oversized items?

There's also the size of the grocery list to consider. For nine or fewer items, the list has a decent shot at being faster with self-checkout. With 10 or more—especially a lot more—the cashier has the distinct time advantage.

Perhaps more importantly is experience. The customer's first few times doing self-checkout will almost certainly take a lot longer than their tenth or eleventh. If the customer isn't given enough help during those first couple of times, there's a fine chance they'll never try again. If so, that customer will certainly not see it as customer-friendly.

So how is self-checkout helpful for customer service? One of the consumer concerns about self-checkout is that it will result in cashiers losing their jobs. In this climate—where finding retail workers who will stay put is such a rarity—that's not a legitimate concern for most.

But it does speak to how it does help customer service. Most chains want to use self-checkout to free associates from cashier duty—where they likely are delivering little value-add or brand differentiators—and move them to truly customer-service areas, such as carrying customer bags to their cars, doing home delivery, working in the bakery or deli sections making customized items for customers, etc.

This is a rather important point because if retailers try and sell self-checkout to their customers for the wrong reasons, it makes those trials much less likely to succeed.

In short, self-checkout will be faster but only for the right type of purchases and the right kind of customer. Given that new customers won't know much of this, their initial experience might be bad.

To make self-checkout work effectively, the store will need to have trainers and helpers surrounding the self-checkout lane, which will cause a temporary reduction in customer service as employees will be pulled from somewhere else.

Also, to get a lot of consumers comfortable with it, incentives will be needed. Yes, a sign declaring that self-checkout groceries will cost 5-10 percent less should quickly yield a lot of trainable volunteers.

Having trouble getting key segments of your customers to try the self-checkout? Give them a 15 percent discount on any purchases processed through the first five tries of self-checkout and then see how resistant they are. Yes, it will cost a chunk, but the cost will be limited and it will likely sharply accelerate acceptance of the technology.

Any store with a focus on customer service must also set security options appropriately. And the spot checks—assuming that's how they'll go—must be done discretely and pleasantly. Making it take more than 45 seconds and the perception of efficiency will vanish.

That, coupled with a campaign to help customers differentiate self-checkout-friendly purchases from cashier-friendly ones, could truly make a difference.