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  • Samantha Steadman

Navigating The Great Divide Over Self-Checkout Solutions

Updated: Apr 5

In today’s modern landscape and following the effects of social distancing during the pandemic, the self-service checkout is a common sight to see on any grocery shopping trip. However, with grocery stores expanding their self-service areas, at the expense of manned tills, and more and more retailers across the industry introducing the self-checkout as an option in store, the technological convenience still leaves shoppers divided. As Northern high-end grocer, Booths, chooses to eliminate the self-service checkout from their stores entirely, this blog will explore how the self-service till has become more prevalent in recent years, consumer’s reactions to this shift and whether more retailers may follow this lead and return to the traditional colleague-manned tills.

In November 2023, Booths axed is self-service checkouts in all but two of its 28 stores[1] in response to customer demand, replacing these with more employee-manned checkouts and pay points. The two stores which will keep self checkouts are Windermere and Keswick in which footfall at checkouts can get very busy. The high-end supermarket chain maintains the position that manned tills are better for shoppers and enables the grocer to uphold their “warm Northern welcome.” However, they appear to be an outlier in the industry where more and more retailers are making the move towards self-service. Last year Tesco removed some of their manned checkouts to replace with self-service, M&S declared that it had added 800 self-checkout tills to stores over the past 12 months to cut costs and a recent Lidl opening had almost 20 self-checkouts and just 2 manned tills[2]. Recent data from RBR Data Services shows the number of supermarket self-checkout machines has risen from 53,000 to 80,000 over the past 5 years. Although a popular sight in grocery stores, even fashion retailer Primark has begun to offer self-service.[3] Following their trial of click and collect service in June 2023, where customers can check in store availability of items[4], this addition to stores hopes to cut down on checkout times with the fashion retailer being notorious for its long queues. One Facebook user commented, “I’ll be honest needed some socks for my little girl was dreading the trip. Was very easy and quick using the self service! Well done Primark!”

The self-service checkout has always been a divisive topic, with shopping missions seemingly more influential on opinion than age or other demographics.  Retail Gazette conducted a survey on LinkedIn asking their community if they preferred self or manned checkout – from 800 votes the split was almost straight down the middle, with 52% opting for Self-Checkout.[5] Many shoppers love the speed and convenience of the self-service option and Tesco’s trials of their trolley self-service tills proved to be successful and were introduced to more stores across the nation with the retailer stating there is a lack of demand at the supermarket for manned checkouts. Queues are generally much shorter on the self-checkouts, and so customers often opt for these for smaller shops or quick call ins with no time to chat – according to a survey conducted by[6], 66% of shoppers thought that self-service improved efficiency while shopping.

The self-checkout also provides a more relaxed shopping experience for nervous shoppers or those with alternative communication needs, allowing them to access the retail environment without the added stress of uncomfortable or confusing human interactions. The COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to changing shopper behaviour and preferences, with many wanting to distance themselves from others and limit their contacts and this behaviour has remained in place in the years following.[7]

As the technology becomes more prevalent, the solutions provided become more reliable and issues and glitches occur less and less, giving the shopper a quick and easy exit without the stress and inconvenience of finding a store colleague available to run items through the till. For retailers, costs are also, of course, forefront of mind – with labour costs rising year on year and technology becoming cheaper and more reliable, the self-checkout is a logical solution to keep profits coming in and the business viable.

However, with 230,000 shoppers signing a petition to prevent Tesco cutting its staffed tills for self-service last year, it is clear a large number of shoppers are firmly against the rise in self-service. Many find the technology glitch-prone and impersonal with frustrations rising when having to wait to staff members to authorise age-restricted products or solve issues with the machines. Job security and cuts are also a big concern for retail staff and the general public alike with the reduction of manned tills. One customer posted on Facebook regarding both these issues - “They always go wrong and then you have to wait ages for a staff member to come (they are always busy, short staffed etc) and the more self-service till the less staff meaning less jobs.”[8]

Another big concern for the community is how this shift to advanced technology will affect the older generation. A survey conducted in 2017 showed that 1 in 4 over 70s said self-checkouts put them off shopping altogether.[9] Although the pandemic and its after-effects may have converted a few, the technology could prove daunting for those unfamiliar with it and deter them from shopping trips, potentially isolating a large sector of the market. Add to this that for some the small interaction at the till is a huge part of their day, and taking this option away could mean the already lonely become even more isolated. A Twitter user aired their concerns saying, “a little friendly conversation at the checkout is sometimes the only interaction elderly or shy people get.”

Industry experts have put forward strategies and tools in order to manage some of the negative feedback to the self-checkouts and improve customer reactions. It’s important that retailers continue to improve these machines, allowing them to become more intuitive and user-friendly based on customer feedback. Insight With Passion CEO and founder Kate Hardcastle says, “Retailers should view these systems not as static installations but as dynamic tools that evolve with consumer needs and preferences.”[10] She also suggests that retailers would benefit from introducing or investing in “emotional engagement strategies” alongside the self-checkouts. More team members available to assist shoppers with their self-checkout journey, ready to troubleshoot any problems with the machine and simply provide friendly interactions with shoppers could make the world of difference to how customers perceive this development in the grocery shopping experience. Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies and Deputy Principal at the University of Stirling expanded on the notion of keeping store colleagues around for self-checkout systems, saying, “When they go wrong, they are really frustrating to a customer, so it is up to the floor staff to sort issues quickly and try to ensure that the issues do not repeat.”[11]

Retailers are also on board with keeping on as much staff as possible, feeling their teams make the shopping experience a better experience for all. Despite negative backlash of the grocers sacrificing manned tills for self-service, a Tesco spokesperson has confirmed, “Our colleagues and the friendly service they provide are absolutely vital to our stores and will always be on hand to help our customers, whether they are checking out at one of our colleague-operated or self-service checkouts.”[12] Waitrose will also be keeping their self-checkouts and manned checkout tills in order to allow their customers to choose their preference, stating, “our customers appreciate choice; some want the speed of a self-checkout, while others prefer a personal service.”[13]

It's evident that the self-checkout still leaves customers divided – the promise of convenience, efficiency and cost-saving being weighed up with technical glitches, employment rates and personal interaction. The element of choice within stores is an important factor for retailers to consider, offering plenty of manned tills alongside colleagues available for support at the self-service to ensure both sides of the love/hate divide remain happy and supported within store. With Booths looking to a be an anomaly among grocers in terms of eliminating the self-service option, whether you love or hate them, it’s unlikely that self-check outs are going anywhere any time soon.



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