The implementation is the problem, not the technology

This is a post I eventually plan on writing about transit, especially BRT. But today, the subject will be about self-checkout lanes at supermarkets, because I saw an article pop up about them the other day. Said article appears to pop up every few months.

How is transit related to the supermarket? It’s related because if you botch the implementation of a technology or service, people assume the shortfalls are because of the technology, instead of being because of bad management.

Despite an almost universal dislike for standing in long or slow checkout lines, an overwhelming majority of shoppers opt for cashier-assisted lanes instead of self-service, according to the 2011 “Food Retailing Industry Speaks” report published this autumn by the Food Marketing Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.

Self-service checkouts — introduced nationwide about a decade ago — have fallen in popularity. About 16 percent of supermarket customers used the self-service lanes in 2010, down from almost 20 percent in 2006, according to the report.

Perhaps as a result, some supermarket chains such as Albertsons of Boise and Big Y Foods Inc., with 61 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, are removing self-service checkouts.

Read more: Self-service checkouts fall from favor – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Self-checkout lanes began appearing over a decade ago. As the article points out, most people prefer not to use them. I’d wager that if you polled people who do use them, you’ll find that they generally dislike the checkout format and the many problems that arise from it, but they use it anyway to save time, or avoid people.

The problem isn’t that scanning items is too difficult or time-consuming, as this article hints at. The problem is that the implementation of the technology generally sucks.

That’s especially noticeable when you realize that there have been almost no improvement in self-checkout in the past 10 years. The same slow, noisy and error-prone machines of the past are what are still being installed today.

“Error. Please place item in bagging area. PLEASE PLACE ITEM IN BAGGING AREA. ERROR ERROR. Please wait for assistance”

Anyone who has used the typical self-checkout machines has experienced the above.

But that’s not an inherent problem with using self-checkout machines. That’s a problem with implementation. Especially when almost every self-checkout uses this model.


This model simply doesn’t make sense. The american supermarket shopper tends to shop once every week or two, not every day. That means, there’s a giant cart full of groceries. This model will be inherently slow, because there’s absolutely no room to spread out the merchandise and so be able to sort the bagging easier.

And the whole “error, error” crap? That’s because the supermarket doesn’t trust you, and wants each item weighed to make sure what you scan is what you take (ie, not letting you scan a pack of gum and take a gallon of milk).

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

It took the English supermarket giant Tesco to introduce a easy, common-sense implementation of self-checkout to america.

All they did was take the standard checkout lane, where one quickly scans an item and it rolls away to the bagging area, and turn around the scanning console so it’s self-checkout.

It works well. You’re never asked to place an item gingerly in a small area for the sensors to check the weight. The chain realizes that speed is key, and nothing is faster than scanning and letting items roll away (the conveyer belt moves automatically). There’s a level of trust there that other chains aren’t willing to extend to their customers.

There’s plenty of space, and you can focus on scanning and not bagging. Issues like produce where other chains ask you to enter codes, weigh your item and so forth? Not here. Each piece of produce has a tiny tag which you scan. No extra work needed.

As for the bagging portion, if you come with a partner, they can stand at the end (like anywhere else) and do the bagging. If you come alone, roaming staff members will get your bagging started for you, and are ready to help if you ever get stuck. Generally, the only time the machine freezes up and makes you wait for assistance is if you purchase alcohol and your ID needs to be checked.

Fresh and Easy takes the self-checkout concept further by ONLY providing self-checkout. The great part is, there are never any lines. And unlike other stores which “close” their self-checkout areas after 9pm, F&E has every lane open at all times that they are.

Self-checkout can be a great convenience, for purchases small or large, because they can radically reduce the instance of having to wait in line. I can’t be the only one who wanted to purchase a single item, saw only one register open with a line 6 deep, and simply left without the item. Having the option of self-checkout would eliminate that concern. And as long the implementation is done right, you can get the upside of convenience and choice with very little downside.

The point is, don’t immediately associate the drawbacks of something with the technology. It may simply be that the implementation is poor.

Instead of saying “I hate self-checkout” you may really mean “I hate the self-checkout machines my local store decided to install.”

3 Replies to “The implementation is the problem, not the technology”

  1. It doesn't look like Fresh & Easy shares you enthusiasm for its own self checkout system. They're testing a scan and shop system at one of their stores now

    The funny thing is if you look at the picture of the sign in the store the things they are saying the scan while you shop system is an improvement over are the very same things they say are the benefits of their own self-checkout system over the manned checkout system at other supermarkets. Like no more loading/unloading, that its faster.

  2. In other words, Fresh & Easy is the most innovative supermarket in America…they already have the most advanced self-checkout system in place, and they're already looking at more advanced implementations of the technology.

  3. Personally, I'm not a fan of the way in which they're implementing that wireless checkout tech, as it requires an employee to look through your bags before you leave (ie, undoing your wonderful packaging).

    All these options would be moot of someone went ahead and invented a 5 second total-shopping-cart scan….and then implemented it properly.

    And yes Steve, I think their outsider (Tesco owned) strategy has led to some good innovations in a stagnated sector.

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