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Self-Checkout Lives Up To Its Name

Written by Jay McCall, Senior Editor for Integrated Solutions for Retailers Magazine

The retail industry has witnessed an emergence of self-help technology - ranging from store kiosks, that enable customers to look up product information, to self-checkout lanes, which enable customers to bypass slow cashiers and long lines by handling their own merchandise. But, not all self-help technology is as helpful as its name implies. Take some self-checkout systems, for instance. After customers scan their products and bag them, they take them over to a service desk - usually manned by one employee - and wait in line as traditional checkout customers file out ahead of them. This scenario could be more accurately described as customer-assisted checkout - a concept that is self-defeating at best.

K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc. (Abingdon, VA) comprises 86 supermarkets throughout the tri-state region of southeast Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and northeast Tennessee. After searching for ways to get an edge on its competitors, it looked into self-checkout. "We had two primary criteria for our self-checkout system," recalls Don Mascola, director of in-store services at K-VA-T Food Stores. "First, the system had to take up about half the space of a conventional checkout lane. And second, it had to offer end-to-end self checkout - not employee-assisted checkout only.

"K-VA-T Food Stores discovered NCR's FastLane self-checkout met its criteria. The system came in a variety of sizes and enabled customers to pay for their purchases with cash, debit, credit, or EBT (electronic benefit transfer). Prior to deploying the self-checkout systems in any of its grocery stores, NCR and K-VA-T Food Stores' POS vendors (Innovax and Retalix) worked together to create APIs (application program interfaces) among the systems. "After the interfaces were created we set up a pilot in our test lab, located at our main facility," says Mascola. "During the three-month pilot we were able to tweak the program and work out any bugs that we could find, such as making sure debit transactions accepted PINs and all touch screen functions worked properly.

Training Leads To Greater Autonomy

Even though K-VA-T Food Stores' goal was to have customers help themselves, it didn't believe self-training was the best way to introduce the new checkout lanes to customers. The grocer spends six weeks training store employees and customers how to use the system. "A lot of people have a fear of new technology," says Mascola. "They worry that they will make a mistake and get stuck waiting for a store manager to help them. But, if there is a trainer nearby, they are more inclined to try it out and become familiar with the process." After the six-week period is up, the designated K-VA-T Food Stores trainer no longer stands by the self-checkout system. "The FastLane features a paging mechanism, which is triggered when the 'Help' button is pushed, or when a customer scans a tobacco or alcohol product, or if a customer puts an item in the bag without scanning it," says Mascola. "We designate two employees - one of whom is usually a store manager - to respond to the self-checkout 'Help' or 'Authorization Required' response."

Self-Checkout Saves Space, Time

K-VA-T Food Stores has currently rolled out the NCR FastLanes at 25 of its 86 stores. Depending on the size of the store, there may be anywhere from two to four self-checkout lanes. On average, the self-checkout lanes occupy half the floor space their counterparts require. The grocer has observed that during peak business periods, the self-checkout lanes help keep the overall checkout lines to a minimum. K-VA-T Food Stores estimates that up to 22% of its customers prefer to use the self-checkout lanes and that the self-checkout lanes account for up to 15% of the grocer's sales. "The general profile of the person who prefers to use the self-checkout lane is someone who prefers to shop four or five times per week and to pick up what they need for dinner that evening," says Mascola. "Also, there are some people who, after a long day at work, prefer not to have to deal with people. They just want to be able to get in, get out, and get home."

K-VA-T Food Stores currently has four new stores that are being constructed and will open by spring 2003. Each of the new stores will feature the NCR FastLane self-checkout lanes. Additionally, the grocer plans to roll out self-checkout lanes at its remaining 61 stores over the next few years.