Magazine Article | October 1, 2001

Check This Out

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

In a quest for increased customer service, your best bet might be less service - let customers serve themselves.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, October 2001

Ask anyone who knows me and they will confirm that if I want something done, I'd rather do it myself. Thankfully, technology continually fuels my desire for independence. I don't need to watch a bank teller cash my paycheck because I can drive to an ATM and punch in the numbers myself. I use touch screen technology to search for a book, listen to a CD before I buy it, or confirm my airplane seat without having to speak with another human being.

I float happily through my independent existence, until I enter a grocery or discount store where I have no choice but to turn my cart over to a cashier. Before I choose a lane, I pace back and forth making mental notes of each customer's shopping cart contents. Will the cashier have to call for a price check? Will that lady with the rain bonnet pay with cash or write a check? How many coupons will she squabble over? No matter how extensive my checkout line research, I always end up trapped between the sugar-free gum and the impulse-buy lip balm, longingly watching as the next lane over moves at a much faster pace than mine. Once I face the cash stand, I cringe as the inexperienced attendant stacks the stewed tomato cans on top of the fresh strawberries and loads the fragrant fabric softener in the same bag as the fresh loaf of bread.

But all this has changed. I recently walked into a local Kmart store and was greeted by four NCR Self-Checkout stations. Remembering an NCR demonstration I saw at the Retail Systems Conference, I was able to successfully complete my own shopping transaction with the option to pay with cash, credit, or debit. Touch screen prompts led me through the steps without confusion. I was ready to start singing the "Star Spangled Banner", celebrating my independence right there in the store as I thought - where will these pop up next?

Put Your Customers To Work
My local store is just one of 1,300 Kmart locations that will install NCR Self-Checkout registers throughout the 2,100-store chain this year. Kmart would like customers to use the POS (point of sale) hardware for quick purchases, keeping the store's checkout lines down to three customers or less. Kmart reported in May that some of the stores had processed almost 40% of their total sales through the self-service stations, proving that I am not the only one with an independent streak.

But consumers aren't the only ones who benefit from the convenience of unassisted shopping. Even during high traffic periods, retailers and grocers are able to have more checkout lanes open without having to add cashier staff. In the Kmart store, one cashier attendant watches over the four self-service stations from a central terminal. From there the employee assists customers who struggle with the machines, monitors any suspicious transactions, and accepts checks as an additional form of payment. And if the retailer chooses to staff the additional lanes, the NCR Self-Checkout E-Series converts to a traditional checkout lane.

Buy Time For Other Jobs
Although the self-checkout option itself didn't go any faster than if a Kmart employee had scanned and bagged my items, I didn't have to wait in line nor did I feel like I was wasting my time watching the process. And if I tried to get away with avoiding the scanner and go right for the bag, the built-in weight database catches the error and the system alerts the monitoring employee. The lanes are clearly equipped with surveillance cameras which is also a way to deter shoplifters. In one way, self-checkouts may reduce shrink by eliminating cashier errors, since the touch screen and voice prompts lead customers through the checkout steps in the correct order.

Retailers constantly state that their top priority is customer service. Self-service checkouts, like those from NCR, Optimal Robitics, or PSC Inc., require less service at the POS. This frees retailers to provide more service in other areas of the store, such as maintaining shelf stock or assisting customers in the aisles. But whether I can scan my purchases or not, retailers still need to have the products I want to buy when I want them. Because, afterall, it's all about me - the customer.

Questions about this article? E-mail the author at