When Machines Overcharge, It's News. Human Clerks? Not So Much

Getting in-store customers to use self-checkout is hard enough, with many customers worried about scanners that might mis-scan, bill acceptors that might swallow their cash and clerks who won't be there when needed. But a customer at one New Zealand grocery store can stop worrying—he knows he's been overcharged at the self-checkout, where products that are advertised on store shelves as being on sale ring up at full price.

Yes, it's just as illegal in New Zealand to display one price on the shelf and charge a higher price when it's time to check out. And it's the machines that customers will blame for the foul up—even if it turns out they're overcharged the same way at the regular checkout counters.

According to a news story in the Manawatu Standard newspaper on Tuesday (Nov. 2), customer Bernie Walker said he has been regularly overcharged by the self-checkout machines—for example, being charged the full price of $4.98 for a bag of Granny Smith apples that's advertised as being on sale for $3.98.

"The staff have actually told me they know about it, and that people will just have to ask them to correct it, if they happen to notice it when they check out their goods," Walker told the newspaper. "The staff have been only too happy to reimburse me, but what I get so angry about is that it seems to happen every time." And he had only been overcharged at the store's self-checkout counter, Walker said.

But two days later, the newspaper reported that other customers had the same complaint—except they were regularly overcharged at the staffed checkout counters.

One man, Lawrence Bell, said he was overcharged so regularly that the checkout clerks knew to wait until he had checked over his receipts before starting on the next customer. His most recent overcharge: $27.82.

But Bell didn't go to the newspaper (literally, he took his receipts to the newspaper offices) until after he saw the report about the self-checkout overcharging. Neither he nor other overcharged customers thought it was a big deal when they were charged too much—except when it happened during self checkout.

That's not a coincidence. Customers know the regular checkout counter. When something goes wrong, they figure that machines fail but the cashier will make it right, so they take it in stride. But when the unfamiliar self-checkout machine fails, that's news.

It may be an unfair bias against technology, but it's one every retailer that wants to depend on self-checkout, automated tunnel scanners and other newfangled gadgetry has to deal with: The machines have to get it right if you want any chance of getting customers to use them.