A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 15, 2020

Why Stores and Customers Agree That Self Check-Out Is Hard

Customers find the systems confusing and annoying.

Retailers find that the human helpers are often needed anyway, especially for older shoppers and that many customers view taking an item without paying for it because it was not scanned or scanned incorrectly as 'payment' for the inconvenience as well as for the understanding that the machines are replacing jobs. JL

Sarah Nassauer reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Shoppers aren’t the only ones frustrated by self-checkout machines. Retailers are too. Stores have embraced them (in) a tight labor market, lost revenue from shoppers moving online, and as shoppers become accustomed to interacting with technology instead of humans. (But) weight sensors used to deter thieves trigger many “wait for assistance” messages that annoy shoppers. (And) theft jumps when customers scan their own purchases. Self-checkouts are annoying for shoppers and “this is restorative justice.” “Self-checkout is more complicated that most people realize.”
Shoppers aren’t the only ones frustrated by self-checkout machines. Retailers are too.
Walmart Inc., WMT 0.38% Target Corp. TGT -1.39% and other retailers are adding thousands of self-checkout machines to U.S. stores to save money on labor as they spend more to staff new services like online delivery. But self-checkouts come with new, sometimes costly challenges as retailers try to curb theft, cut wait times and keep customers happy.
Some retailers, including Walmart, have quietly disabled or removed the weight sensors used to deter thieves, because they trigger too many “wait for assistance” messages that annoy shoppers.
Now retailers hope cameras gathering data on products and shoppers can solve their self-checkout woes. They are replacing scales with video systems that some say are better at catching mis-scanned items and stopping transactions in progress only when it is necessary.
Weight sensors created “friction during the transaction,” a Walmart spokesman said.

Many U.S. retailers introduced self-checkout systems a decade ago, only to pull them out after customers revolted. Stores have embraced them anew in recent years as they contend with a tight labor market and lost revenue from shoppers moving online, and as shoppers become more accustomed to interacting with technology instead of humans.
Despite the headaches, retailers still see added savings. Walmart and Target are adding more self-checkout machines each time a store is remodeled. Last month Walmart opened its second U.S. store without any human cashier lanes. Costco Wholesale Corp., COST 0.03% which pulled back on a previous test of self-checkouts, has the devices in about 120 of its 546 U.S. stores and plans to add them to 100 more stores, Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said. The registers help Costco speed up checkout lines and cut labor costs, Mr. Galanti said.
The number of cashiers in the U.S. is likely to fall faster than overall retail workers because of advances in technology, predicts the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s website.
Theft jumps when customers are empowered to scan their own purchases, both at a shelf-checkout register or with a hand-held device as they shop, according to industry research.
Some theft is premeditated and often involves “ticket switching,” or using the bar code from an inexpensive item like Kool-Aid packets or votive candles to cover the real bar code of a more expensive item while scanning, industry executives said.
Then there are the more passive forms of thievery. Some happens when a shopper can’t find the bar code, gets frustrated and takes the item anyway. In other cases, “shoppers can stumble upon the opportunity” if they discover a retailer has turned off the weight-based security system or isn’t properly staffing the area, said an executive at a self-checkout manufacturer. “That is where you see an increase,” the executive said.
Terrance Thomas said he accidentally walked out of a Kroger KR -1.40% with a case of bottled water he didn’t scan. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to turn around,’ ” the 30-year-old Houston resident said. “ ‘I’m just going to take it.’ ”
Now he intentionally mis-scans items, he said. “I’m not filling up a basket with T-bone steaks,” Mr. Thomas said. “I’m going to steal some kale or vegetables.” He enters the code for a less-expensive vegetable or smaller quantity, he said. He reasons that self-checkouts are annoying for shoppers and that “this is restorative justice” because of his own views about these companies’ practices.
Adding to the challenge, most U.S. retailers train staff to not confront shoplifters directly, but to instead engage potential thieves in a friendly way to hint they are being watched or to randomly check shoppers’ bags as a deterrent. “No amount of merchandise is worth putting our associates in harm’s way,” said a personal familiar with Walmart’s policies.
“Clients are looking for alternatives to weight-based security systems” and are turning to new technology, said David Wilkinson, senior vice president of NCR NCR -0.45% Retail, which is owned by NCR Corp. and makes the self-checkout devices in most Walmart stores. NCR recently started pitching clients its own version of video technology that is augmented by humans off-site watching 5-to 10-second clips of suspected mis-scans to help reduce false positives, Mr. Wilkinson said.
As Walmart backed away from weight-based theft detection on its self-checkout machines, it started using a data-gathering camera system made by Everseen Ltd., a technology company based in Cork, Ireland. Walmart said Everseen camera systems are in more than 2,000 stores.
The system uses cameras to track product and shopper movement, then correlates that information with what is being scanned through the self-checkout. Everseen aims to pause the transaction in real time if an item was mis-scanned, call over a store worker to correct the issue and show the shopper and worker a short video of the incident to identify the item and deter theft, Everseen executives said. Walmart said it doesn’t use the data for other purposes, the spokesman said.
The retailer also is developing its own version of artificial-intelligence-enabled cameras for self-checkouts, which could become an alternative to Everseen in the future, said people familiar with the situation.
Mr. Thomas said he no longer steals from his local Walmart after encountering a new camera system late last year. The self-checkout paused, called a store worker and played a short video of Mr. Thomas’s hands in the act of mis-scanning, he said. “I have not tried to steal from a Walmart since.”
Overall, shoppers are embracing self-checkout as retailers fine-tune their systems, industry executives said. At Target, about one-third of shoppers choose self-checkout, a spokeswoman said. Target has self-checkout stations in all but 200 of its 1,900 stores, she said.
More shoppers say they prefer self-checkout over traditional cashier lanes, even if they don’t use them every time they shop, said Fredrik Carlegren, executive director of global marketing for Toshiba TOSYY 2.75% Global Commerce Solutions, which operates cashier checkout systems at Walmart and self-checkouts at other grocers, including Albertsons Co.
Toshiba has developed its own data-gathering camera system for use at self-checkouts to prevent theft and track other measures, but it isn’t yet live in stores, Mr. Carlegren said. Toshiba’s version uses cameras that can compute data without sending it to a cloud-computer server farm off-site, so it can process data faster to speed transactions, he said.
“Self-checkout,” he said, “is more complicated that most people realize.”


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