Will Customers Scan Their Own Items While Waiting On Line?

A Los Altos, CA, technology vendor called SmartTools thinks that customers should stop lollygagging around in the cashier checkout lanes. While waiting, they should be scanning their own items and saving the cashier's time. If you find this idea attractive, we need to chat. (Hint: This is not an especially good career-advancement purchase.)

The tradition of anti-customer service began in earnest with self-checkout systems. These have proved popular with people who don't want to deal with cashiers and who think the short lines are because no one else has figured out how efficient those machines can be.

Officials at Los Altos-based SmartTools see an opportunity in an inbetween step, where customers can wait on a long time to see a cashier, but they can scan their own items while waiting. This is an impressive worst of both worlds scenario: they get to scan their own groceries and wait on a long line for a cashier.

SmartTools has posted diagrams showing how their system could be integrated into a typical retail checkout lane. The service will cost retailers about $400 per lane, said SmartTools' Byron Siu, but retailers find that a good price. Their concern, Siu said, was the absence of a good method to verify that the customer has scanned everything.

That's certainly a good concern, but there's a more fundamental issue here. Why would the customer do it? Are they offering a discount? (No, as if you didn't already know.)

Worse yet, what message is this sending to your customers? Is this improving the customer's experience? Offering them lower prices? Faster checkout? (Not really, as they still have to wait for the cashier to take payment and to do some kind of authentication.) Better services? Improved selection?

As for the verification, the retail pressures to push products through the checkout line as quickly as possible does not bode well for cashiers accurately verifying that all products have been properly scanned. Remember what happened to Wal-Mart last year? A barcode scam was staggeringly successful because it depended on the apathy of strangers. Pressure a cashier to keep products moving as fast as possible and threaten almost no consequences if a shoplifter gets through their aisle and you have a recipe for Shrink Du Jour.

Sometimes, an effort that truly seems to be good customer service backfires, which is what Best Buy discovered when it offered to take back defective hard-drives and safely dispose of them. Unfortunately, a Best Buy customer found one of his old hard-drives?repaired, the customer's personal and financial data fully intact, and quite undestroyed?being sold at flea market.

Longtime industry observer Paula Rosenblum <a href="http://www.retailmattersblog.com/2006/06/are_retailers_using_technology.html
">blogs about this trend away from customer service at the RetailMatters blog and makes the case that retailers have forgotten how to respect their customer.

Is biometric authentication a courtesy or an insult? Is shifting merchandise location to encourage aisle walking a sign of respect?

The courtesy card comes with discounts?which is great?but many retailers automatically give those discounts to everyone by swiping a generic loyalty card for outsiders. That brief flicker of positive reinforcement that perhaps our chain truly does value your loyal shopping is obliterated when regular customers see cashiers giving the discounts to everyone.

We've written about how a true customer-friendly CRM program would do more than provide small discounts. With its ability to analyze purchases and tie them into individual customers, it could also use that knowledge to alert customers to recalls or other problems. Now that would generate some serious loyalty and show some respect. How many retailers have you seen doing it?

There's no question that technology can dramatically help retailers boost efficiency, increase sales and improve profitability. But that's only true to the extent that the technology is seen helping customers in some ways. Think of the latest generation of smartcarts as a great example of technology and customer respect working together.

Think about that the next time you get frustrated at a customer that is wasting time in a checkout lane, flipping through a magazine, when they could be scanning in groceries. After all, what the heck do they think they're being paid for?