Buying your groceries at a supermarket is pretty simple – wait in a queue, hand your items over, pay for them, pick them up and go.
However the checkout counters are expensive, take up valuable space and only work when there are staff present. That makes it difficult to ramp up or down for demand, and, queues are generally required to make the costs economic.
Enter the supermarket self-checkout system. These take up a lot less space, but allow the shopper to avoid the queues and check out at a speed that they can control.
However it’s not so simple. The systems bought into lace, at least in NZ, are appallingly complex. From my experience the process is something like this:
The clearest demonstration of failure is at beginning, with the queue. An efficient checkout system would be able to take up all of the demand and remove the need for queues, as the Air New Zealand check-in kiosks do at local airports.
The experience of self-check out is vastly inferior to the traditional approach, especially given that almost all checkout operators I encounter are interesting, efficient and genuine. I generally prefer to avoid human interactions when making purchases, but the current state of play is just woeful.
The answer lies in trust. The supermarkets clearly don’t trust their customers, and the asinine scanning and weighing procedures slow the entire process to a crawl. The answer is to turn the tables, and place the onus of getting he checkout right on the customer, rather than trying to solve a potential issue with technology. Almost everyone is honest, especially in New Zealand, and a few tricks can increase compliance to essentially 100%.
Firstly, install cameras and discrete signs on the checkouts noting their use, and noting that failing to check something out is deemed as theft. Make the design of the kiosks open enough so that the customers can be observed from several directions by other shoppers and staff.
Secondly bring in a system of random audits, picking one in every 100, say, and doing so using the checkout itself rather than human selection. The audit will involve a team of two nearby who will check he contents of the bag against the receipt after checkout, and then give a coupon, discount or other small gift to everyone for their compliance. Treat non compliance as a mistake, unless obvious for high value items, but flag their credit card for future increased audits or potential banning from self-checkout.
Finally remove cash as an option for self checkout, which will remove the complex and breakable cash-acceptance equipment, and encourage the continuous transition to debit and credit cards. Accepting only plastic will also give the ability to retain more control, as well as offering the ability to link credit cards to loyalty cards and provide benefits.
Why not for now allow us to scan items as we shop, using an iPhone application or a portable scanner attached to the trolley. That we we can arrive at the checkout with the items already in a list, and perhaps we can even pay for them with our phone or with a credit card acceptor attached to the trolley.
Ultimately we should be able to lose the checkout process entirely, as each product can have an RFID tag, and your phone or wallet can contain a remote payment mechanism which is activated as you leave.