Think long and hard the next time you go to use a self-service checkout. Unless you’re planning on stealing something, the benefit may actually be marginal.
Forget “Down, Down”. If you happened to get the groceries at Coles over the long weekend, you would have most likely seen their latest catchphrase – “I’m Free”.
The recently launched “I’m Free” campaign saw every checkout across all Coles stores staffed over the Easter long weekend. That’s the opening of an addition 13,570 checkouts at a cost of more than $5m for the retailer.
Unfortunately the campaign has received a bit of backlash on social media from customers, with many suggesting that it might not be entirely appropriate for young female employees to wave giant paddle sign claiming “I’m Free” (Coles have since removed the use of the paddles).
You could also argue that given the Easter long weekend is the second busiest time of year for Australian supermarkets one would kinda hope Coles would have most, if not all checkouts open (Christmas is actually the busiest period, which they coincidently ran similar promotions over the previous two years)…
But despite the negative reception from a small minority and my slight cynicism towards the promotion, it’s still a piece of clever marketing. It just goes to show that at a time when supermarkets are rolling out more-and-more self-service checkouts, it reminds us that customers still value service.
So are self-checkout’s actually beneficial to customers?
We’ve seen massive growth from supermarkets using self-service technology over the past few years. For retailers, the benefits are pretty obvious. They’re cheaper to operate. Stores can fit more checkouts in-store per square metre with less staff required to operate them.
IBIS World reports that staff costs as a percentage to revenue earned from supermarkets are currently the lowest they’ve been since 2004. And expect these to fall even further with the recent abolishment of Sunday penalty rates.
And when it comes to self-service technology within the supermarket industry you ain’t seen nothing yet, with both Coles and Woolworths reportedly looking to rollout the technology even further. Soon you may even not have to go through the hassle of scanning each item. Imagine a future where each product in-store is tagged by an RFID chip and you simply walk through a scanner at the checkout. The technology currently exists, it’s just getting it to a point that’s cost effective enough to rollout on a large scale.
And self-service isn’t just limited to supermarkets, expect to see other retailers adopt the technology. We’re currently seeing the likes of department stores, hardware and even fashion retailers trialling in-store.
But from a consumer point of view there isn’t a lot of research as of yet that using self-service over traditional checkouts is actually beneficial. And what is available is somewhat sketchy (i.e. a lot of it is done by the companies that create the technology).
The unfortunate news for consumers is that any benefit from using self-service over a traditional checkouts appears doubtful.
Firstly self-service checkouts aren’t quicker for consumers, at least in theory.
We won’t get into the technicals of queue theory here, but all things being equal a customer purchasing via a staffed checkout versus a self-service checkout should take exactly the same time. Arguably a staffed checkout should actually be quicker, given an experienced staff member is driving the transaction as opposed to the customer. Yet self-service checkouts are cheaper for supermarkets to operate. The reason they seem quicker for consumers is that supermarket can open more of them in-store at one time effectively reducing the time spent in queue.
A study from Harvard Business School also showed that a consumer’s perception of a brand and their general satisfaction decreases as consumers begin to have less face-to-face interactions
However there may be a more sinister reason behind the rollout of self-checkouts then simply reducing staff costs. Once you remove the human element from the equation, you’re shopping behaviour subtly changes.
Mcdonald’s and other fast food restaurants have recently been experimenting with the technology. And the results aren’t pretty from a consumer perspective.
Research done into the fast-food industry showed that by removing the human factor out of the transaction, you’re subconsciously likely to both spend more and order more calories. Customers were also more likely to purchase additional ingredients on burgers and desert than if they were served by an actual person.
And it get’s worse.
When it comes to supermarkets, if we know we’re ordering through a self-service checkout we’re more likely to purchase smaller amounts more frequently. Research shows that when we know that we are shopping via a self-service checkout at a supermarket, although our basket size decreases we’re likely to visit the store more often. We’re less likely to do the “once a week grocery shop” but rather do multiple smaller shops because shopping has now become much more convenient. And subconsciously we’re less likely to keep track of our overall spending.
However don’t fear, there’s a silver lining to consumers….
It’s now more easier than anything to steal.
Without a human face to self-checkout’s, reports show there has been a huge rise in theft with a third of shoppers deliberately swiping the wrong barcode or simply not swiping an item at all. Proof of this is that nearly half of shoplifters caught at Coles in 2015 used a self-service checkout, and most of them were apparently customers who started shoplifting routinely after discovering how easy it was. And if you’re male you’re even more likely to steal.
Supermarket’s are now finding just how hard theft through self-service checkouts is to tackle. The conundrum for retailers is that they are essentially asking customers who aren’t trained to do this work to now take on the task. But the more fraud detection mechanisms they put in place to deter theft make the job more difficult and slower for the consumer.
So if you’re planning on stealing something from a supermarket, there’s never anytime greater than the present!*
*RetailOasis obviously don’t condone stealing anything from self-checkouts.