Walmart, jobs and the rise of self-service checkout tech

If self-checkout is a mature technology, why are some stores ditching it?

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"It's about offering our customers a choice in how they checkout," said Ashley Hardie, the Walmart spokeswoman. Customers are telling us "they are looking for an easier, more convenient way to shop in our stores," she said.

Walmart has self-service checkout systems installed in about 1,800 stores. Some of the 10,000 new systems, a purchase announced in November by the vendor NCR Corp., will be used to upgrade older systems. The deployment is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, expanding self-checkout systems to about 2,500 of Walmart's approximately 4,000 stores. There are about eight checkout kiosks per store, the company said.

Despite Walmart's decision, automated checkout faces problems from customers.

When Albertsons, a large regional food and drug retailer with stores in the South and West, pulled its systems, the company explained its decision in a lengthy Facebook post.

Lots of customers talked about the self-service checkout lanes, wrote Albertsons in 2011, "but mostly" it was about how the checkout lanes "'take jobs away from people.'" Some also complained that it lessened the customer experience. "Customer service is always our highest priority," the company said.

Today, Albertsons' self-checkout systems "are completely removed, and we haven't revisited it," said Albertsons spokeswoman Christine Wilcox.

Ikea moves the other way

Ikea is removing systems from its U.S. stores, too.

"We have found that checkout times were longer for customers who used self-checkouts than for those using staffed checkouts," said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth. "At Ikea, we believe staffed checkouts are more convenient to the customer - especially given the unique shopping experience our stores offer."

Francie Mendelsohn, the president of Summit Research Associates, which studies kiosks and other self-service systems, used Ikea's system. She said the bar code scanner had to be six inches away to get a scan, something she didn't know. So the system didn't work for her. "Nobody around me was able to scan anything in, either," she said.

In general, Mendelsohn said "a seasoned human checker is much faster than a person doing it by himself at the kiosk."

Vendors and analysts say there are many consumers who like these automated systems because they see them as fun, they allow shoppers to check each price, and some consumers prefer to pack their bags a certain way. Stores are staffing one human for every four or six self-service systems to help customers use them.

NCR offers upgrades

At the National Retail Federation show in New York this week, vendors such as NCR were unveiling technology upgrades. NCR has developed an image-based capability that can recognize certain products. Instead of keying in a product code for a banana, for instance, the system recognizes the banana, said Dusty Lutz, general manager for retail self-service solutions at NCR.

Lutz said NCR is trying to make the job of running these systems easier for IT by including such features as predictive capabilities. For instance, the self-service checkout system can monitor CPU temperatures and if something starts running outside of normal ranges, it will trigger an alert before a more serious issue occurs. "It's not designed to create a new burden for the IT staff," he said.

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