Retailers

While Britons might have a reputation for being good at queuing, they still resent waiting in line as much as anyone else.

The introduction of the self-checkout was designed to take away the worst of these queues, allowing consumers to scan their own items. It also significantly cuts costs for retailers, as they can cut down the use of manned tills.  

Since their introduction at the UK’s largest retailer Tesco more than two decades ago, they have become a fixture in our supermarkets – but so too have technical glitches, problems recognising customers’ bags, and the dreaded phrase ‘unexpected item in bagging area’. 

Self-checkouts divide opinion, but retailers have doubled down on their use in recent years in a bid to offset rising costs in other areas. 

So will more shops introduce them, or could customer backlash and rising problems with theft halt their progress?

Unexpected item in bagging area: Customers are divided when it comes to self-checkouts

Unexpected item in bagging area: Customers are divided when it comes to self-checkouts

Have self-checkouts been a success?

Seamless and frictionless are words retailers like to employ when they talk about customer experience. Self-checkouts were intended to provide just that, and it is true that they have been welcomed by many shoppers. 

Graham Soult, retail expert at Canny Insights tells This Is Money: ‘They were introduced to make the customer experience easier and better. The supermarkets would certainly claim that. 

‘If you’re in an M&S in a railway station buying a sandwich, it speeds up the process.’

But they have also been a huge cost-cutting exercise for supermarkets, which have ramped up self-checkout tills while staff numbers have dwindled.

Data from RBR Data Services reveals the number of self-checkouts in supermarkets have increased from 53,000 to 80,000 over the past five years.

Andrew Busby, retail expert at Redline Retail says: ‘From a retailer point of view, it’s fairly straightforward. 

Poll

How often do you use self-checkouts?

  • All the time – I prefer them 29 votes
  • Sometimes 32 votes
  • Rarely 21 votes
  • Never – I always go to the till 54 votes

‘It’s got nothing to do with customer experience, it’s all about cost – but it’s sold to the consumer as the opposite of that.’

Soult adds: ‘Retailers will argue that it’s not about cost-cutting, it’s about freeing up staff to do other things. 

‘But I’m not sure many customers would perceive it that way. I don’t think you go into a store and suddenly see more staff on the shop floor to help you.’

Supermarkets say that self-service tills have increased because more customers are choosing to use them, and that staff have not been cut.

For example, a spokesperson for Morrison’s tells this Is Money: ‘We are committed to providing choice for our customers on how they want to checkout and pay for their shopping. 

‘Over recent years more and more customers have chosen to use self checkout options, therefore we are ensuring we update our stores with a mix of payment points’.

But are customers really getting a better customer experience as a result?

Do it yourself: Supermarkets have cut manned tills in favour of self-checkouts to cut costs

Do it yourself: Supermarkets have cut manned tills in favour of self-checkouts to cut costs 

Soult says that while most shoppers generally don’t mind scanning their own goods, they still want to be able to speak to a real person if the need arises. 

‘I think where the flashpoint comes is when you have the self-checkouts and it is at the expense of the customer experience. That is quite a dangerous place to be,’ he adds. 

There are some kinks that still need ironing out, too. ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’ is a familiar refrain for many consumers, as well as hefty queues and age checks needed for items such as alcohol and razor blades.

Where you’ve got somebody who is much older [a checkout] might be the only conversation they have with somebody that day

A YouGov survey conducted earlier this year showed self-checkouts continue to be an annoyance for 27 per cent of UK adults. 

It becomes progressively more irritating as age increases, growing to 34 per cent for those aged 55 and over.

Jonathan De Mello, chief executive of consultancy JDM Retail, says there is a ‘vocal portion’ of customers who would still prefer manned tills.

‘That’s kind of generational… a typical scenario is where you’ve got somebody who is much older and that might be the only conversation they have with somebody that day,’ De Mello adds. 

While supermarkets have leant into the new technology, most still provide a balance of manned and self-checkout tills, especially in larger stores.

‘It’s one thing buying a sandwich, buying a suit you expect a personal touch’

The argument for self-checkouts in local supermarkets is a relatively easy one to make. 

These are typically smaller stores, where customers are buying just a few items and want to get in and out quickly. 

De Mello says: ‘Tesco is a good example. Self-checkouts generally tend to work in the more local environment. On balance it is a force for good which is why we’re seeing them more often.’ 

Less hassle? Uniqlo has introduced self-checkouts in its stores across the globe

Less hassle? Uniqlo has introduced self-checkouts in its stores across the globe

Popping in at lunch time to pick up a meal deal is much less hassle when you can scan it yourself with minimal queues. When it comes to buying clothes though, it’s a little different.

Despite that, growing numbers of retailers are starting to introduce them, including Zara, Matalan and Uniqlo.

Primark has introduced self-checkouts in 20 stores across the UK, and says customers have had a ‘really positive’ response to them. It says it has not made job cuts, with staff helping customers at self-checkouts and regular tills.

Many customers argue that it is a luxury that they pay for, and resent having to fold their own clothes.

Soult says: ‘It’s one thing to buy a sandwich, but buying a suit I think you expect a bit of a personal touch.’

Without supermarkets having paved the way for self-checkouts, it’s unlikely fashion retailers would have ever introduced them, and it marks a significant shift in the way people shop.

‘The whole concept of self-service is becoming more accepted, although there’ll still be a percentage of customers who don’t like it,’ says Busby. ‘I think we’ll come to accept that as part of the in-store shopping experience.’

Uniqlo and Decathalon have been lauded as particularly good examples of introducing self-scanners. Both retailers have introduced baskets in which customers can put all of their items, and they are automatically scanned.

But there are still pain points for customers.

‘Retailers haven’t fully worked it out,’ says De Mello. ‘They understand it’s good and they like the idea of implementing tech to save money and reduce friction, and hopefully increase spend. 

‘However, they haven’t fully worked through the entire customer touch points, like security tags. 

‘There’s no point in having self-checkout if you then have to go and see a member of staff.’

Helping hand: Retail experts say that speaking to a member of staff can be useful when it comes to buying clothing - and helps to prevent customers having to return items

Helping hand: Retail experts say that speaking to a member of staff can be useful when it comes to buying clothing – and helps to prevent customers having to return items 

And there are still some customers that won’t be happy with the change. 

Soult says: ‘M&S in the last year or so has ruffled a few feathers with the introduction of self-checkouts in its fashion and home departments. I commented at the time that I think it’s a misstep.’

Busby thinks customers will also miss some of the checks and balances that come with manned tills.

‘You take something off the track based on the size that’s shown on the hanger and you don’t check the label inside.’ 

Staff can prevent this, so without them there could be an uptick in returns. 

Busby thinks it will be different for fashion retailers but there might be times when it comes in use.

‘You can imagine that sometimes you’d need something like a pair of socks, a necessity purchase, and you want to get in and out as quickly as possible. That would certainly be a use case where fashion self-checkouts enhance the customer experience.’

Jonathan De Mello thinks higher costs will prevent retailers from investing in tech

Jonathan De Mello thinks higher costs will prevent retailers from investing in tech 

What happens next for self-checkouts?

For fashion retailers looking at the next models, it is very unlikely they will go down the supermarket route, although it will depend on the store.

‘The [self-checkout] bucket is quite a unique selling point for Uniqlo, it stems from its Japanese roots where they’re very tech-focused,’ says De Mello.

‘But I don’t think many retailers these days, given all the other cost headwinds, have the capital to invest in anything really too tech-focused. It just needs to be basic tech that they can implement fairly quickly.’

That means customers could be dealing with supermarket-type self-checkouts, which will likely increase frustration.

As a result, some other businesses may well move in the other direction and invest more in their staff, as a differentiator to major brands.

‘The increase in self-checkouts which was partly a consequence of Covid,’ says Soult. ‘I think in parallel you’re seeing a move by certain retailers, more premium brands and independents, who are really focusing on the human element. One of the things we learned during Covid was how much people valued human contact.

‘Some businesses are going down the self-scanner route and trying to take humans out of the equation, and other businesses are focusing on what they can do in store that actually makes them different.’

Some bigger brands have already done so. Booth’s – often dubbed the Waitrose of the North – ditched self-checkouts in the majority of its stores last autumn.

‘We’re not great fans of self-checkouts,’ managing director Nigel Murray told the Grocer at the time. ‘We pride ourselves on great customer service and you can’t do that through a robot.’

De Mello thinks the decision is likely a misstep: ‘This is a backward step in my opinion, I’m not sure it’s going to pay off for them,’ he says. 

‘I can see the reasons as to why some retailers might want to abolish them, but I do think in general there’s a consumer need for them.’

Could shoplifting affect the rollout?

Major retailers will also be keeping a keen eye on how shoplifting will affect any further rollout of self-checkouts.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show shoplifting rose 37 per cent to a record high in 2023.

Even though one or two staff are normally around to monitor self-scanners, there is no doubt that it is easier to steal when you are checking out your own shopping – so retailers will need to weigh up the amount they save by implementing self-checkouts with potential increases in theft. 

‘It is a major problem,’ says De Mello. ‘People are buying expensive things and putting them through as cheaper items, that’s certainly an issue.

‘People are doing all sorts of things to game the system, but the system is there to be gamed in a sense – you don’t have people there to monitor you.’

It is even more endemic in the US, where retailers have been forced to revise their self-checkout strategies. 

Walmart removed self-checkout machines at some stores in New Mexico last year, while Costco has blamed the technology for a rise in ‘shrink’, the retail term used to describe theft.

Soult says: ‘My view is that if the wastage was so high that it didn’t stack up, they wouldn’t do it. I suppose some degree of error or of theft is built in. I think also the tech arguably has got better so that certainly in some stores where you’re having to weigh things, it can be quite difficult to play jiggery pokery with the thing and sneak stuff out.

‘Unfortunately one of the biggest things you hear is people just blatantly taking stuff off the shelves and walking out with it. Those who are intent on stealing from shops will just do it anyway.’

Retailers have their work cut out trying to ensure self-checkouts don’t become more of a pain point for customers, but it might prove more inconvenient to row back now. 

Busby says: ‘I’m old enough to remember that my first job in retail was working on a petrol station forecourt and filling people’s tanks of fuel. 

‘I think we’ll see the same thing [with self-checkouts] as it becomes more and more commonplace. It will just be a part of the shopping journey which we accept and will grow to embrace.’ 

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