Do self-service checkouts provide a good customer experience, or do they just rely on an experienced customer?

Most of us have had ‘that’ battle with a self-service checkout at some point: “unexpected item in

the bagging area”; does this sound familiar? The self-service checkout has been a part of retailers’

checkout strategies for a number of years now, but what hasn’t been clear is to whose benefit they intend to


In this blog I look into who really benefits, and if self-serve checkouts are likely to stay.

Source: Twitter user @HopelessSurfer

Who benefits from self-serve?

In the early 1900s, when mass retail made the profound shift from counter to self-serve, the role of store employees

changed considerably. No longer were they required to serve each customer individually; invariably greeting customers

by name and reciting regular orders.

Their role turned more to replenishment, enabling customers to shop almost entirely unaided, self-navigating stores

with minimal assistance. Customer service took on a new guise, primarily driven by customers as and when needed by


The one guaranteed point of interaction – until relatively recently – had been the checkout. The introduction of

self-serve tills changed that. With promises of faster throughput and cost-saving economies, these were supposed to

benefit customers and retailers alike; benefits that I don’t see having come to fruition as intended.

Reduced interaction between customers and store employees

For quite a while retailers believed customers wanted to be self-sufficient to quicken the shopping process. A

significant amount of time and energy was spent optimising store labour models, reducing time allocated to customers

and introducing self-serve at checkouts.

From a customer perspective, however, the opposite couldn’t be more true. RSR Research from July 2015 shows that retail ‘winners’ are far more likely to have

increased payroll as a percentage of sales, in order to ensure staff are more productive. The cost per employee has

gone up, but the overall labour bill has gone down with fewer employees in store. True, or were they redeployed, and

thus has overall cost gone up?

This is something to be discussed another day, but the point is that more customer/store employee face-time leads to

an improved customer experience.

Faster – and more – transactions

When everything goes well, customers get the faster shopping experience they ‘want’, and retailers get a

much lower staff-to-checkout ratio.

But there is an associated risk to this when, for example, a product doesn’t scan, the scales sense an

inaccuracy or an ill-informed customer presses the wrong button, all of a sudden you hear  the “please

wait for assistance” claxon sound and the customer is left abandoned. If you’ve ever been in this

situation (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t), the embarrassment, frustration and panic that can suddenly

strike is unnerving.

Yet, don’t forget the tasks that can only be undertaken by store staff (such as scanning a lot of coupons) and

thus detracts from self-serve yet again. In theory, using this type of checkout is all fine and well, as long as

store employees are plentiful, experienced and extremely attentive, which given labour model changes rarely is the


Shift to focus on customer centricity

Still one of the most despised points in a store customer journey, retailers have outsourced the checkout to only now

think about taking it back again. The shift to become more customer-centric has prompted retailers to put the

customer truly at the heart of everything they do. In turn, the checkout experience is back on the agenda for a


  • Staffed checkouts reinstated– In addition to promising to invest in the

    number of staff in-store, Morrisons has recently re-introduced

    the ’10 items or less’ checkouts that they got rid of a number of years ago. Tesco too has talked a lot

    about putting more staff hours back into store

  • Self-serve models upgraded– Tesco and Sainsbury’s have introduced

    new card-only slimline self-service checkouts, aimed at the grab-

    and-go or top-up customer who will only have a few items. Morrisons has also upgraded their aging

    Wincor-Nixdorf models to a sleek and modern NCR model

  • Choice offered– Marks & Spencer in London Bridge has recently

    replaced the majority of their staffed tills with self-service models, but with a strong staff presence remaining,

    there has been little negative impact on the overall customer experience

  • The non-human made more ‘human’ – Tesco has gone so far as to re-record their self-service

    checkout audio voices to be “friendlier, more helpful and less talkative” – a more human touch,

    even if there aren’t quite enough humans available

The next era of self-serve

So what’s next? Many retailers have adopted a digital transformation strategy and many self-serve disrupters

have appeared such as RFID, digital wallet and Scan & Go. These are the concepts that offer the potential for

even greater mutual customer/retailer benefit, with lower capital investment and a means of providing a more seamless

and multichannel experience.

In my opinion, the introduction of self-serve checkouts was a cost-driven exercise prompted by retailers, with a

little customer benefit to boot; this must change.

The checkout is an essential part of the retail customer journey to get right. Whether the decision is to reinvest

staff hours to improve quality of customer interaction, or simply improve self-serve options, retailers must ensure

they offer a great customer experience throughout. Can retailers really afford not to invest in strong and positive

lasting impressions in the current climate?

What is for certain is that a flustered and frustrated customer exit from store is not conducive with a repeat visit,

or longer-term customer loyalty.