WALPOLE - At the Big Y supermarket, Lucette Nicoll eyes the busy cashiers. The self-checkout lanes are free. She pushes her brimming cart toward one. Employee Jessica Campbell knows in a glance that Nicoll will need help. Moments later, as if on cue, a light flashes. Service stalls. Campbell steps in. Produce is the culprit.
Checkout problems like this are among the reasons Big Y Foods Inc. announced plans to eliminate self-checkout machines by the end of the year. The company, based in Springfield, will add more clerk-operated lanes to the affected 30 branches of its 50-store organization. “We’re very service oriented,’’ says Big Y spokeswoman Claire D’amour-Daley. “There were too many variables where the self-checkouts were not working.’’
If you want to get out of a store quickly by checking yourself out, there’s nothing more maddening than the line slowing to a halt. It all seems simple enough. You face a display screen, then scan items over a glass plate that doubles as a scale. Groceries go down a conveyor belt that ends at a bagging area. What can go wrong?
Most produce comes without bar codes. Customers have to scroll through a dense display screen to find the item, which, if an apple, can offer a dozen choices. Food stamps usually need clerk approval. If items are thrown at the belt, rather than placed, they may miss a second hidden scale confirming the purchase. Failure to bag accruing items stops the system.
Then there is consumer fraud. Supermarket representatives would not divulge how coupons are used fraudulently but acknowledged what one person calls “the banana problem,’’ which involves placing a beef roast on the scale and punching in bananas. This trick usually fails because the sensor recognizes the difference between the weight of the beef and bananas.
Big Y’s announcement comes three months after Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC removed self-checkout lanes from its 200-plus stores. The decision by two big chains to eliminate self-checkout is generating debate on its viability. Big Y based its decision on feedback from employees who reported problems; the supermarket now believes the lanes contradict the company’s philosophy that face-to-face is the best customer service. “Customers checking themselves out is not any kind of customer service,’’ says Gregory Motta, the Walpole assistant store director.
Stop & Shop Supermarket Cos. and Shaw’s Supermarket Inc., which also operates Star Market, have no plans to eliminate self-checkout, say officials for those companies.
“Our take on service is convenience and options,’’ says Suzi Robinson of Stop & Shop, which also offers Scan It! hand-held checkout devices (see related story on following page).
Grocery stores began installing self-checkout about 10 years ago. According to a 2011 study by the Virginia-based Food Retailing Industry, retailers often have one employee assisting four to six lanes. The study found that customer satisfaction was higher among shoppers who use cashier-assisted lanes. “Check-out decisions often relate to the unique customer service strategy of the retailer,’’ says Heather Garlich of the Food Marketing Institute.
Scott Klemmer of Stanford University believes most self-checkout machines are poorly designed. “The current self-checkout version is uncomfortable. Lights go off. Beeps sound. You have to wait for a clerk. It’s a frustrating experience,’’ says Klemmer, codirector of Stanford’s Human-Computer Interaction Group. “Consumers think they’ve done something wrong. All they wanted to do was get out of the store faster.’’
“Self-checkout is what you make of it,’’ says Mike Grimes, CEO of the Quincy-based Modiv mobile media technology services company. “True customer service means choice. Albertsons and Big Y took that away from their customer. That is very likely not a good move.’’
One supermarket chain that prides itself on service has only recently adopted self-checkout. Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, with 79 stores and a new location in Northborough, slowly began adding self-checkout in 2009. Today, 14 stores have the systems (Northborough does not). “We were very late to the self-checkout party,’’ says Jo Natale of Wegmans. “The footprint was too big for the store, they weren’t ergonomically well-designed; you needed to be an octopus to reach the change.’’
Wegmans designed a smaller system and the result is a pay-and-scan unit with a low-level, rotary bagging area instead of a conveyor belt. A clerk will always be on hand to assist. Natale says the system will never replace cashiers.
Klemmer predicts that eventually all stores will overcome their reluctance. “We saw the same thing with personal computers 30 years ago,’’ he says. “It took a couple of decades for people to figure out computers and for software makers to figure out how to get the interface just right.’’
By then, the scanners will be able to identify the apples by themselves.