Self-checkout psychology: Don't scare away shoppers

Retailers really want shoppers to use self-checkout, but many underestimate the psychological deterrents they put in place

ibm self checkout machine
Credit: Sven Dowideit, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Retailers really want shoppers to use self-checkout. For them, self-checkout is a great opportunity to reduce staffing costs. You would think, then, that they would do all they could to make self-checkout a great experience, one that would appeal to its best customers. This isn’t so, and many retailers clearly underestimate the psychological deterrents of self-checkout.

How about embarrassment? When customers get any scan wrong, they have to seek help. Many of them can’t help but feel that all eyes are on them and their failure. And then there’s true humiliation, when the associate who was turned to for help ends up questioning the shopper in a way that can feel like a public accusation of shoplifting.

I understand the retailer's point of view. Shoplifters do find the self-checkout lane tempting. (Although, interestingly enough, they are mistaken about this, since self-checkout lanes have more cameras focused on them and more anti-theft mechanisms in place than staffed lanes do. But not every thief believes that.) Nonetheless, associates need to be trained not just to intercept shoplifters but also to handle these sorts of interactions in a non-accusatory, professional manner.

And it would really help if the technology worked better. Survey results released July 21 by the Harris Poll — underwritten by a self-checkout vendor, unsurprisingly — showed that almost 75% of shoppers said that they avoided self-checkout. And “nearly 45% of consumers who avoid self-checkout do so because of technical or barcode scanning difficulties.”

That suggests that shoppers have either run into those kinds of problems themselves or witnessed someone else's frustrating self-checkout experience. The interesting question about that is, "How long will it take before a shopper will let go of the memory of a bad self-checkout experience and give it another try?"

Let’s call it "The Persistence of Memory" factor. "The Persistence of Memory" is  Salvador Dalí's most famous painting, the one with those melting watches. Now, when I call this "The Persistence of Memory" factor, I mean that a bad experience stays with you for a long time. But that name does make me wonder: Did Dalí envision what it would be like to be stuck behind someone who needs assistance at self-checkout? Because you do feel as if time is melting away.

Retailers should certainly ask themselves how long a shopper who has had a bad experience at self-checkout will continue to shun such lanes. Will the shopper refuse to try again for weeks? Months? Years? The answer to that question speaks to the true cost of such hiccups. And the answer is likely to depend on the severity of the embarrassment or humiliation that accompanied the incident.

The Harris study tried to quantify what about self-checkout can turn a shopper off. Larry Logan is chief marketing officer for Digimarc, which is the vendor that funded the survey. Logan said that when something goes wrong — for almost any reason — during the self-checkout process, most shoppers tend to blame themselves. “Their immediate frustration is ‘Am I the one who is at fault?’ There’s a little bit of shaming when I have to ask the cashiers to come over and assist me,” he said.

One way to reduce problems at self-checkout would be to prominently post notices that they are for low-volume transactions only — 10 items or less, say. Most of these systems were designed with that in mind, but I have yet to see a retailer enforce or even encourage it. The result is slowdowns for those customers and everyone behind them.

By the way, it's interesting that the Harris poll found that 30% of respondents felt like a burden to the cashier and other customers when they have a full cart. Think about this, retailers: You offer your fast checkout options to your worst customers, the ones with the fewest items in their carts. Shouldn’t shoppers with high-dollar-value, overflowing carts get the top perks? Why should those big spenders feel ashamed of their full carts?

But to get back to self-checkout, the Harris survey, as noted, was sponsored by a vendor, and that vendor, Digimarc, sells a product that it says can make scanning go a lot more smoothly. "We imperceptibly embed the product’s Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) data across every surface, making the entire package scannable," Digimarc says. That means products don't have to be oriented in any particular way in order for the scan to register.

It's a pretty good idea, but it's hardly an immediate retail-controlled answer to the self-checkout problem, since manufacturers of the thousands of SKUs in the retailers' stores have to adopt the GTIN process.

In any event, problems will persist that technology can't address, and retailers need to think about easing them. One suggestion: Station associates as close as possible to self-checkout units so they can quickly respond when customers are having problems. Another suggestion: Make sure that those staffers assume that every incident is an unintentional oversight, not an attempted shoplifting, unless there is overwhelmingly clear evidence to the contrary. The cost to the store of falsely accusing one legitimate shopper of shoplifting is an order of magnitude worse than letting one would-be shoplifter off the hook.

Comforting words such as “It is so easy to overlook these items. It happens all the time” will go a long way toward lessening the shopper’s embarrassment. And don’t forget that other customers are watching, so the exact tone will influence far more than one shopper's future behavior.

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