Why ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Has Left Some Consumers Feeling by Themselves

Oct. 4, 2023
By Phil Lempert, SupermarketGuru, Consumer Trend Tracker, Food Trends Editor, NBC’s Today, and Author

Once hailed as the revolutionary answer to long checkout lines and a way to reduce personnel costs (and sometimes used as a scare tactic in retail union negotiation talks), self-checkout machines now find themselves at a crossroads. It is seemingly the era of the rise and fall of this tech-infused trend.

There is no doubt that self-checkout promised efficiency, and during the pandemic, with customers concerns about the proximity to others and the retailers’ concern about labor shortages, it quickly became ubiquitous. But today, we find it inadvertently has also sparked increased theft and customer dissatisfaction. In a recent segment on NBC Nightly News, shopper complaints were rampant — everything from complaining that the technology doesn’t work, that it’s too cumbersome when buying produce, to being offended that they have to do their own checkout!

Initially, retailers were wooed by the potential cost savings of self-checkout machines. After all, a one-time investment in machines that could reduce the need for multiple cashiers was an attractive proposition. However, this view was short-sighted. With the rise in theft, the additional expenses for security measures, and the constant need for cleaning and sanitizing the flatscreen and scanner glass, many retailers found the promised savings were elusive. Coupled with the machines’ maintenance costs and the need for at least one employee to supervise, the financial benefits started to look less appealing.

Self-checkout seems to have become an emotional trigger for shoppers. Some supermarkets across the nation have decided to eliminate self-checkouts entirely like ShopRite supermarkets in Delaware based on shopper complaints, while some stores are using a hybrid model where they place a cashier at the self-checkout and they do the scanning and bagging for customers.

There is little doubt that it is time for all retailers from grocers to home improvement stores to take note of consumer sentiment and reevaluate whether these machines are worth the investment.

On the surface, self-checkout machines appear to offer a sleek solution to one of retail’s age-old problems: long queues. By dispersing the customer load among several machines, these devices were designed to speed up the checkout process. However, the underlying issues that cropped up over time weren’t about technology but about the human experience intertwined with it. It was an easy fix fueled by the illusion of efficiency!

Many customers, particularly those who are less tech-savvy, find themselves battling with these machines. What should be a simple, speedy process has turned into a game of deciphering on-screen prompts, searching for PLU codes, navigating unresponsive touchscreens (which are seldomly cleaned and as a result sometimes less efficient) and contending with unexpected errors. A common complaint among users is the infamous “unexpected item in the bagging area” alert. Another problem is when a customer accidentally bumps their cart or body into the machine, it signals for help from customer service and stops the checkout process.

Some older customers and those who are not as familiar with digital interfaces feel lost and alienated. For them, this experience is a reminder of the relentless march of technology and the diminishing human touch in everyday transactions.

One of the most significant problems with self-checkout is theft. Loss prevention has always been a concern for retailers. Yet, with the introduction of self-checkout machines, many are finding that shoplifting rates have increased. The onus of scanning and bagging items shifted from trained cashiers to consumers, and with limited oversight, the temptation and opportunity for theft rose. Whether through “accidental” mis-scans, weight discrepancies in the bagging area, or even more blatant theft, self-checkouts inadvertently make dishonest actions more accessible for those so inclined. On a recent visit to a Ralph’s supermarket in the Los Angeles area, I witnessed a customer who had affixed a barcode from a produce item on his hand and was scanning that barcode while putting more expensive items in his shopping bag.

Retailers are responding by integrating more and more security measures — cameras, weight sensors, personnel oversight and having security personnel checking receipts against purchases at the exit. These often lead to false alarms, slowing down the process and irritating loyal customers, especially when guards accuse them of, or imply theft. Ironically, this technology that was supposed to streamline shopping ended up complicating it.

Some retailers are exploring Amazon Go’s technology, and other similar tech-enabled environments, characterized by the “just walk out” shopping experience; and see it as the future of brick-and-mortar commerce. These systems integrate AI, sensors, and advanced computer vision, to significantly enhance operational efficiency. For shoppers, the instant check-out process eliminates the age-old pain of the manned check stand and the self-checkout, making the checkout experience more convenient and appealing. One allure for retailers is the harnessing of real-time data on shopper preferences and shopping patterns allowing retailers to tailor their inventory in real-time and more effectively utilize marketing strategies ensuring that shelf space is utilized for maximum profitability.

However, the transition to an Amazon Go-like system isn’t without its challenges. Foremost among these is the significant capital expenditure required to retrofit existing stores with the necessary technology. Just as in the self-checkout conundrum, not all customers are comfortable with technology, and in addition, the pervasive surveillance inherent to the system, raising privacy concerns that risks alienating a segment of shoppers who cherish personal interactions and the tactile experience of traditional shopping.

In this era, where Surgeon General Dr. Vivkek Murthy has called loneliness a public health crisis, more people are wanting more in-person human touch points — and where better than our supermarkets? It’s undeniable that a significant portion of shoppers prefer human interaction, especially when problems arise. Whether it’s a question about pricing, applying a discount, or handling returns, addressing these issues with a machine is often less intuitive and more time-consuming than with a human cashier. Plus, the simple act of conversing, the smile, the “How was your day?” the “Thank you for shopping with us,” the “May I help you with your bags to your car?” — these intangible elements can transform a routine shopping trip into a pleasant outing. It is the human touch that builds brand loyalty and keeps customers coming back.

The era of self-checkout machines and tech-enabled shopping experiences serve as a reminder that in the pursuit of innovation, it’s essential not to lose sight of the human experience. Technology should serve people, not the other way around. As retailers reimagine their customers’ shopping experiences, build new store formats and plan for the future, we all need to remember that while machines can process transactions, it’s humans who build relationships.

And in the retail world, relationships are everything.