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Self-checkout: What shoppers want to do is rarely what they end up doing

Evan Schuman | July 7, 2017
One of the first things retail executives learn is that shopper surveys are horrible indicators of what shoppers will do in stores

In other words, use your associates to train your shoppers when self-checkout is a good idea and when it's not. That's a non-technological way to improve the self-checkout experience.

That all said, there is something inherently inefficient in centralized self-checkout. That inefficiency is, in theory, fixed with mobile checkout. Instead of throwing 58 SKUs into the cart and then, at checkout, scanning each item, one at a time, isn't it far better to scan the barcode in-aisle, right before it's thrown into the cart? That way, when the last item is thrown in, the checkout is 99% done. Walmart did a trial using that approach several years ago, but the chain has never mentioned it since.

But mobile checkout - which has been the hot retail IT topic for more than seven years - suffers from a serious case of chicken-or-the-egg. A handful of retailers experiment with it, but don't see enough shopper enthusiasm to merit full deployment. That's mostly because those shoppers have so little chance to try mobile checkout that they can't get super comfortable with it. It can't become a comfortable habit.

Hence: chicken-or-egg. A large number of retailers won't support it without huge shopper enthusiasm during trials, and shoppers won't deliver that acceptance until there are far more retailers offering it. Need a more practical example? Look at Apple Pay's plateaued share of U.S. transactions.

The most daring experiment is from Amazon's Go stores, which bypass barcode scanning entirely, replacing it with a series of cameras and video analytics. This store has many practical problems to overcome - Forrester analyst Brendan Witcher said it won't take long before college students figure out that they can "create a huddle and the store will have no idea what they just grabbed" - but the biggest issue is that it's stupendously expensive.

It works well as a concept store, but the idea that Amazon could successfully license and sell this to other retailers doesn't seem realistic. "I think what Amazon is doing is the right idea," Witcher said. "The question is viability."

But Witcher's thoughts on self-checkout reinforced Remesh's thoughts. "Consumers often believe that it will be convenient" even though it often isn't, Witcher said.

Shoppers today think they'll really like self-checkout. Now, if they only did.


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