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Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Grocers 697

netbuzz writes "The law of unintended consequences is taking a chomp out of grocery chain profits as more stores transition from human clerks to self-service checkout technology, thus reducing the time shoppers spend in line and under the temptation of impulse items. That's the upshot of research being released tomorrow by IHL Consulting Group in Franklin, Tenn., which provides market analysis to the retail industry and its IT vendors."
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Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Grocers

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  • I work at Home Depot, as a cashier. I can back up all of parent's statements; people lose about fifty IQ points when faced with the self checkout. That's why ours have a cashier supervising them.

    Think about it. When you're in the self-checkout, you're focused on getting things done, scanning your items (or staring at the barcode wondering what's wrong); when you're at a regular cashier, he's the one doing the work. You sit there and... what? Look around, listen to his dumb jokes, and (more importantly) notice the overpriced altoid knock-offs and useless 37-cent clamps.

    That, or it could have something to do with the fact that there usually aren't any impulse items right next to (or in front of) the self check-out registers. Just maybe.

  • by Majik Sheff ( 930627 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:52AM (#15774159) Journal
    The self-checkout lanes at my local grocer have a sensor system that basically demands staff intervention for every customer. If you don't place the item in just the right spot after scanning, the damned thing is automatically convinced that the user is trying to pull a fast one. The self checkout lanes stand empty most of the time because of it.
  • by 512k ( 125874 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:54AM (#15774162)
    self checkout doesn't work well, because the system checks to see if you honest by weighing what's in your bag.
    Washers are so light, that it often doesn't recognize that they're there. So you have to see that it didn't work; read the screen to find out what happened, read the screen to see what to do...rescan, or pick the bag up and put it down on the pad again, read the screen to see if that worked,

    wash rinse repeat

    I don't buy washers from home depot, but I do buy a packet or two of screws, and this happens all the time.
  • wait a minute... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jimfinity ( 849860 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:56AM (#15774170)
    are they implying that those self-checkout lanes are faster?

    it seems that every time i go through one of those things i have to get some manager over there to "ok" my purchases. whether it's a "violent adult videogame" (half-life 2) or isopropyl alcohol to keep my car's gas lines freeze free (recreational drinking?).

    they've been such a hassle for me i don't even use them anymore.
  • Re:unpaid labor... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by walnutmon ( 988223 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:58AM (#15774181)
    They are not forcing you to do anything, they are offering you a choice. Wait in line while the vapid clerk checks you out, or BE THE VAPID CLERK.

    I agree that self check outs suck, because they are used to cut back on staff, but I don't see it as a grocery store trying to stick it to you. People want them there, because it's their chance to play god, or checkout person. Same thing, really...
  • by synaptik ( 125 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:05AM (#15774199) Homepage
    Both you and the GP forgot to mention: the assinine weight scales on those infernal self-checkout machines. I get so tired of hearing "PLEASE PLACE ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA!" when I've ALREADY PLACED THE FRICKIN' SCANNED ITEM IN THE FRICKIN' BAGGING AREA! You also hear this one when you've filled up all the space on the weigh-scale, and need to move those filled bags back to the shopping cart, to make room for the rest of the crap you've still needing to scan.

    Nor did you mention its complement, "PLEASE REMOVE ANOMOLOUS ITEM FROM BAGGING AREA!" just because it thinks the last thing I put there weighs too much.

    Damn, those are annoying! It is impossible to get any reasonable throughput on those $#@! self-checkout stands. It routinely takes 2x-3x longer than necessary-- especially if you're buying those little packages of 5 washers-- because of that stupid weight scale. (Yes, I know about the "skip bagging" button, but (a) that's almost just as annoying, and (b) in many retailers, if you hit that button too often, the machine locks up until a human can come make certain you're not trying to steal.

    Seriously... just migrate to RFID already, and be done with this weight-scale nonsense!

  • cashiers are better (Score:5, Interesting)

    by focitrixilous P ( 690813 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:10AM (#15774214) Journal
    I have the unfortunate honor of working in a retail position to support my education. A Target namebadge in plain view from my desk at school serves as a very good reminder to stay focused.

    I never really saw the attraction of the self checkout as a serious shopper. When I went out for food with college buddies we'd all hit the self checkout if there was no line as a competition, too see who could avoid having the machine flip out at you for doing something wrong. Because we went so fast, we had to have an attendant come bail us out a couple times. Without fail, someone who had gone through a normal checkout was standing at the door waiting for us. I could probably do it now with my 1337 retail skills, but really the self checkout is a joke. It's boring conversation, and you have to bag your own stuff, just so some company makes an extra dime that you'll never see.

    Support college students. Go through a normal line.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:30AM (#15774262)
    There are a lot of comments "proving" that self-checkout is a waste of time. I have to disagree, at least for me. My method is to cruise by, see if theres a self-checkout already open and hit it. If not, I'll go stand in line (if it's reasonable). I generally fly through the self-checkout with no problems. Then again, I don't buy a ton of produce or anything that requires anything other than the old barcode. I have maybe one problem every 100 checkouts this way. What does this prove? Self-checkout is great for ME. Maybe not for everyone, but definitely for me.

    Plus I prefer buying the 36 pack of condoms (cheaper per condom and avoids me having to buy them as often) at the self-checkout, especially when combined with some other random purchase like peanut butter.
  • by Ethan Allison ( 904983 ) * <> on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:34AM (#15774276) Homepage
    Why not use those 5 cent RFID tags?

    Place your shopping cart in the scanner and hit a button.

    "But what about produce?" you ask? Well, how about RFID-enabled bags with specific tags for each kind of produce?

    Sure, it's not perfect, but it could be refined.

    Plus people could return the tags for store credit, and information embedded in the tags could be used to manage inventory and tell robotic machinery how to bag and/or stock the items.

    Also, if you steal my idea, I will hunt you down.
  • by friedmud ( 512466 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:37AM (#15774285)
    If you are filling up the bagging area then.... YOU ARE TRYING TO BUY TOO MUCH STUFF USING SELF CHECKOUT!

    Self-checkout should be _strictly_ reserved for people who have about 5 things _max_. When I see people with a cart full of groceries pull up to a self-checkout station I just laugh... it will take them _forever_...

    On the other hand, I am almost always the guy that is standing in line with just _one_ thing to buy... I have it in my left hand and my debit card in my right. It takes me all of 30 seconds to whip through a self checkout line. Everyone else needs to get the _hell_ out of the way! ;-)

  • by CTalkobt ( 81900 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:55AM (#15774327) Homepage
    If they'd lower the prices of my groceries I'd go through the lines but since they don't / won't - I won't.

    The more efficiencies that you put in the market the less you cycle the money: IE: Spend $100 paying an individual. That person will then spend $50 of that $100 on something. The 3rd person will then spend $5 of that $50 spending something. Fourth person spending $1 - total money in circulation for spending money is $156.

    In real life the multipliers for money are much higher (8x I think). The more you cut individuals at low-end jobs the more you decrease the overall US economy, or at least drive the profits into the higher income segment.

    Again, lower the price to get me to go through the lines. I shouldn't have to do the grocery store's work for them.
  • by friedmud ( 512466 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @03:12AM (#15774370)
    I'm with you... I hardly ever have problems as well.

    Like I said in an earlier post... people just need to realize when and when not to use self-checkout. When buying produce I almost always realize this and stand in line. But, that's the odd occasion, I'm almost always just picking up that _one_ item my wife forgot... and for that self-checkout is a life-saver.

    Also... you are spot on about the condoms. I can remember being a teenager when self-checkout first came to our Wal-Mart (we were one of the first to trial it)... I thought that God himself had answered my prayers with a discrete way to purchase personal items... to this day I still use self-checkout for those purposes (only now I'm usually buying feminine products in _HUGE_ quantities instead ;-)

    I think it's interesting that so many geeks don't like self-checkout. With our leet computer skills you would think that we would be drawn to it like moths to a flame... but that doesn't appear to be the case.

  • Okay, the customer goes and gets a few scoops of some stuff, putting it into a baggie. He slaps a UPC code on the bag for the bin he got the product out of, and takes it to the checkout for weighing...

    Except... how, in an automated checkout, does the system know that what the UPC code says is in the bag is really in the bag? What if he made a mistake a grabbed the wrong UPC code for the product, or worse... what if he was deliberately trying to swap codes with another, cheaper product?

    A human teller can identify the mistake right then (and in all fairness, should give the consumer the benefit of the doubt, assuming it was a mistake), but a computer will just blindly allow it.

  • by britneys 9th husband ( 741556 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @03:34AM (#15774441) Homepage Journal
  • by Y0tsuya ( 659802 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @03:40AM (#15774461)
    Our local HD added self-checkout lines about 2 years ago. Lowe's followed suit a few months afterwards. Then it was Albertson's turn. I actually liked the self-checkout lines since they're usually shorter and people are getting the hang of it.

    I think sometimes people just get spaced out and are not looking at the right indicators/icons/whatever. Last week I spaced out at a 4-way stop for a minute "waiting for the light to turn green". Fortunately there were no cars behind me.
  • by symbolic ( 11752 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @04:52AM (#15774653)
    That depends - I have a friend who was introduced to the world of grocery not too long ago, and who filled me in on some of the details. For career cashiers (and yes, they do exist), they can be making 2-3 times that. If you happen to get into a "key" position (which typically aren't cashiers), the starting pay can be anywhere from $9/hr or so, up to around $16/hr. That may vary of course, depending on which part of the country you happen to be in.
  • by pijokela ( 462279 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @06:12AM (#15774856)
    I was in the US for the first time last summer and I war really surprised to learn that the cashiers weigh the fruit and stuff on the counter. Here is Finland we weigh them on the fruit and veggie department and get a stick on barcode label that they read on the counter.

    And guess what: they trust us to not add stuff after weighing, the cashier doesn't have a scale.

    OTOH, we don't have self checkout lanes and the cashiers do not pack our stuff in to bags as we leave.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @06:44AM (#15774942)
    The local grocery store here has self-scan checkouts, and they STILL have cashiers standing at the bag-area in order to prevent you from shoplifting. The store has also used the existence of the self-scan area to actually reduce the number of cashiers on duty, so the regular lines are pretty long.

    Many times I have been standing in line at the cashier, and the 'wandering' cashier will come up to me and say "You can take your stuff to the self-scan". I use the usual reply:

    "Do I get a discount for using the self-scan?"

    Of course, they say there isn't, "Well, then I'll stay right here then".

    As far as I'm concerned, if you want me to do your job for you, I get a discount. Otherwise I'll stay in line and make you run every piece of crap over that scanner. All the self-scan is is an excuse to not pay cashiers. Demand a discount if they don't want to pay people to checkout your stuff.

  • by technoextreme ( 885694 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @08:08AM (#15775171)
    I work at Home Depot, as a cashier. I can back up all of parent's statements; people lose about fifty IQ points when faced with the self checkout. That's why ours have a cashier supervising them.

    No. You just think that is the reason why the cahsiers are there. The real reason why is those machines fail pretty often. It's a pretty common occurance where the machine thinks that I didn't place an item into the bag but I did. Usually happens where the item's weight is pretty variable from item to item(ie Baked goods, nuts,washers, etc etc). The problem is that the thing relies on weight. The machine locks up and then you need someone to over ride the machine.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @08:12AM (#15775183)
    First off, I'm going to admit this: I'm an idiot. I'm a systems administrator who can design, implement and maintain Windows and Linux networks, script in Perl and VBScript and I turn into a mouth-breathing, tongue-wagging, drooling moron when I get into the self-checkout lane with anything more than a candy bar and bag of potato chips. There are others like me out there in Slashdot-land. You know who you are. You are not alone.
    That said, the design on these things is out of whack, everything's spread out. It's too easy to forget your cash change since where I shop, it's down by my knees. And it's teeeedious to buy fruit and vegetables, scrolling through all those screens trying to find "tomatoes, plum" and wondering if they're all that different from "tomatoes, romano". Press the wrong button and you could be paying more than just a little bit more than should. These things need to be redesigned in a major league way.

    One more point is this, and I think it's the most important point of all, where's the wisdom in designing a checkout area that has all this frustration and anger built into the system? Since when do you get in a self checkout line and feel nice and civil to the guy in front of you who can't tell the difference between the types of apples he has to choose from? If you're the merchant, do you really want your customers feeling rage, impatience, and anger to each other? The more I see these things, the more I think the answer to that last question is "Yes".
  • by lar3ry ( 10905 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @08:15AM (#15775194)
    Here's a suggestion. Scan a dozen items, and then walk away, throwing up your hands in frustration, saying "I can't believe this store wants me to do their job for them!"

    Don't pay, don't try to take your "purchases" with you. If a manager sees you do this, tell them flat out that their "self checkout" sucks, and you will not waste another second in this store that has no concept of "customer service" and that you are taking your business elsewhere.

    You have every right to decide at the last minute that you don't want to make the sale.

    You now have a self-checkout lane that is effectively blocked until a real live human clears out the items from the machine and from the computer tally. That human will probably also have to restock the items, although those items may simply go into a queue area for people whose job is to restock. Either way, it allows you to vent your frustration and make a point. AND... since a real employee has to get involved, it makes the machine slightly less able to become a cost saver.

    Heck, have a group of friends "slam" all the self-checkouts this way as a form of organized protest. Include people from a variety of backgrounds, ages, etc. Do it a few times to a store before the management refuses to let you enter the store, and then go on to the next store. Or... do it to a bunch of stores, round-robin, returning to a store a week and a half later when some other manager is on duty. Lather... rinse... repeat. If possible, tell the local news station what you are doing, and see if you can get other people similarly frustrated to join your cause. (The more people doing this, the better!)

    It's called "customer feedback."

    "This is Carlotta Dryspeckle from WUTM at the local FoodMart, where Ms. Emmageek is staging an unusual protest against the dehumanizing and staff-reducing 'self checkout' system that the FoodMart has recently installed. She and her friends are engaging in what they describe as a harmless demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the system and what the installation of this system says about the FoodMart's view of their customers."

    "Hi, Carlotta. We're staging this protest here, and a few of my friends will be going to the HomeGoods Warehouse to do the same thing there next week."

    "I'm now speaking to Mr. Mertz, the manager on duty here at FoodMart. Tell me, Mr. Mertz, what is your reaction to this groups' protest?"

    "This is a protest? That's incredible. I know we lose a few customers who get frustrated with the machines, but I never figured that anybody might do something like this..."

    (Meanwhile, Ms. Emmageek and her friends are singing _Kumbaya_ or _We Shall Not Be Moved_ in the background...)
  • by jayloden ( 806185 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @09:16AM (#15775467)
    I used to work as a cashier at a grocery store, and I've worked as a cashier in a department store as well. I'd like to think that I was a pretty good one (fast and efficient), too. Unfortunately, I can attest to the fact that this does not imbue one with any inherent speed at the self-checkout lane.

    It's a question of familiarity. When I was a cashier, by the end of the first day or two of training, I was pretty familiar with the setup; I was using it all day. You start scanning as fast as it will go, hitting the buttons, and looking ahead at what you're about to scan so you can be prepared for produce etc. Self-checkout, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame.

    Every one of those self checkout lanes is a different setup, and I'm just not familiar with it. That means I have to take a few extra seconds to read the screen for each item, fight with the bagging scale, etc. Add that up over your typical checkout and it means it just takes longer than standing in line. *But* - and here's why these things are still successful at all - it's not the length of time it takes to get out of the store. It's the length of time it takes for something to start happening. I guarantee that if you had one person start self checkout immediately and another wait in line, even if the person who waited in line was done first, they'd feel like they were there longer. It's instant gratification, something is happening right away, regardless of whether it's more or less efficient.
  • I wouldn't try to do this in America. Any group action that tries to make any sort of societal change is likely to be labelled as terrorism. I suppose in some twisted and sick way this is terrorism of a sort against the store. They're afraid of you causing their customers to leave because you're clogging up their machines, so they make changes (preferably it would be to have people like yourself be requried to pay for your purchase or to restock the shelves yourself as most places only have 'stockers' working three days a week.)

    I never understood why people in America feel they have to make someone else's life shittier just to express some point. How about you write a letter, and you get all your friends to write letters, talking about how displeased you are with the service you received. Likely you will be sent some coupons, and maybe exact some changes. However causing me to have to either A) Wait in a regular check-out lane to make my purchase or B) wait for some minimum wage employee to clean up your mess so that I can use the self-check out will likely lead to me becoming very unhappy with your 'cause' and doing my best to see you all arrested for disturbing the peace.

    -Everett, no longer a grocery store employee.
  • by maillemaker ( 924053 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @09:39AM (#15775597)
    >I work at Home Depot, as a cashier. I can back up all of parent's statements;
    >people lose about fifty IQ points when faced with the self checkout. That's
    >why ours have a cashier supervising them.

    I always thought the reason you have a cashier supervising them was because the FUCKING SELF CHECKOUT MACHINES DON'T FUCKING WORK.

    I've all but given up on "self-check out".

    Self check-out means wagging your purchase over the scanner at 15 different angles waiting for the "beep" of success, and then putting the thing in the bag only to have the computer continue to ask me to put it in the bag. Or randomly being told to "please wait for assistance" so the supervising cashier can come blindly type in some code and overwride the error. And all for the joy of then walking out the door and setting off the shoplifting alarm.

    Further, if I'm going to do the job that used to get done FOR me, I should get some benefit for it, like a discount.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @11:49AM (#15776452)
    ATMs can be more fun in foreign countries. try Finland where if you get a Finnish atm card you can't get English menus. But if you stick in any foreign card, you can get English menus (i.e. the machines speak English, but they're especially told *not* to speak English to card carriers of Finnish banks). Talk to the credit companies and they'll gladly offer to:

    1. Switch your card from Finnish to Swedish
    2. Switch your card from Swedish to Finnish
    3. Switch your card that you switched from Finnish to Swedish back to Finnish

    Yes, I've really called. They're fairly apologetic, but that's all they can do.

    Of course, if you take your card to the rest of Europe, the ATMs there will gladly offer you English (and 3 other languages).
  • by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:22PM (#15776682) Journal
    A long time ago, in a galaxy far aw... err... a few years back, when Germany's currency was still the DM, I remember using a vending machine in a railways station. And getting a Polish 10 Zloti coin instead of a 1 DM as part of the change. The coin was remarkably similar to 1 DM in size and weight.

    The difference between the two was bigger than between the yen and cent, though. A DM was (later) worth half an euro, while the 10 Zloti... well, let's just say that the difference between 1 DM and 10 Zloti was 1 DM :P

    I'm guessing whoever it was did it more than with that one coin, since pretty soon all vending machines in town had been tweaked to the point where they routinely rejected genuine 1 DM coins too. They swallowed any other coinage just fine, but 1 DM required several tries and some of the 1 DM coins just didn't work at all any more.

    Now I don't know what actually happened there, but my favourite wild uninformed guess (or conspiracy theory, if you will) is that it was done so they'd reject the 10 Zloti coins. Unfortunately the difference between them was so small that it also rejected some of the real coins.
  • Re:Rarely (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:27PM (#15776720)
    As an Engineer, I was taught, and have learned over the years that "Impact Thearpy" is an invaluable tool for getting machines to work.

    aka "Percussive Maintenance"
  • Wow (Score:2, Interesting)

    by baalz ( 458046 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:49PM (#15776879)
    I'm amazed at the vitriol coming out of all the geeks on this one. I guess a lot of people have had really bad experiences, but I would have expected interprising. I tell you what though, I love the self scan lanes BECAUSE of the fact that they are a little clunky and you have to learn how to use them. Why is that? Because 9 out of 10 times there is no line at all - its like having my own reserved lane and I figured out a long time ago how to work it. You just have to be smart enough to know when its the right tool for the job. You don't want to go there with your fully stuffed grocery cart (let the professionals handle that scanning) or stuff you know it has problems with (why in the hell would you try more than once to buy washers on one of these?), but if you're just buying a couple things for dinner, or just stopped by to get that box of nails you needed they make the perfect express lane.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:17PM (#15777094)
    A store with only self-checkout?
    That would be "my" grocery store. I used to like to shop late at night, but lately when I shop at 2 am or so, there is only one checker on duty and they have her supervising the self-check lanes. If you have a full cart, too bad, you have to check everything yourself. And you can bet it messes the machine up because you have nowhere to put the bags.

    My theory is that it isn't store policy to make it self-check only, but the efforts of the employees on duty to discourage customers in the middle of the night (the store is open 24 hours).

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling