Retail Self Checkouts Makes Customers Feel Like Idiots and Criminals

Today, I visited a new Wal-Mart store not too far from where I live.  This has nothing to do with Wal-mart specifically, as it applies to any self-checkout lane, but they happen to be the place that prompted this article.   There were some changes from a traditional Wal-Mart, namely that the exterior is stone, the aisles are wide enough to get two carts by each other, and the parking lot has actual landscaping.  The biggest change to the customer experience, however, was beyond aesthetics: I didn’t see any self-checkout lanes. I’ll admit I didn’t look very hard, so they might be there, but this made me think a bit about why they weren’t there (if they really aren’t).  (Update: there aren’t any.)

Kathy Sierra’s premise of making your users feel awesome (a discussion from her 2009 Business of Software talk that I wrote a bit about) made me think about my recent experience at a different Wal-Mart store that has self-checkout lanes.  I don’t prefer self-checkout lanes for many reasons:

  • They assume you’re trying to steal. Each item has to be placed in a bag, which is on a scale that weighs what you put in there to see if it’s a reasonable weight. If it doesn’t register the weight (if you buy something light) or you don’t want to bag it, you have to hit the “I don’t want to bag this item” button on the touch screen. If you don’t see the button, the screen will just sit there and wait for you to bag it, making the system seem broken.
  • Error messages are incomprehensible. Every now and then, an error message will randomly appear, one of which is “unexpected item in the bagging area – please remove”.  What item? Oh great, now I have to wait for the “cashier” to see that the red light is flashing on my lane and push the magic “continue” button while the customers behind me start to brandish their pitchforks threateningly.
  • If your item doesn’t have a bar code, like fresh produce, good luck trying to find the item.
  • They take twice as long. With all of the anti-theft provisions built into the software, a human cashier can scan and bag everything in half the time.
  • The security tags that are deactivated with a magnet aren’t obvious to customers, so they often make the security system sound an alarm when exiting the store. This adds to the criminal feeling of using the self-checkout lane.
  • Since all of the above leads to a slow checkout experience, customers behind in line get frustrated at the customers in front of them.  There’s nothing quite like “checkout rage” to make the line an unpleasant place.  I’ve received unwanted “advice” from shoppers behind me more than once, which of course adds to the annoyance.
  • The slow pace of the software (thanks to the theft prevention measures) leads to overly long lines.

Contrast this punitive experience to the incredibly positive experience I consistently have at Hornbachers, a local grocery store.  The store is big, bright, and stocked with the freshest food possible.  Even at the peak of shopping on weekday evenings, they have proper staffing at the checkout lanes and the lines are rarely more than one or two shoppers deep. The cashiers are experienced and fast. They even offer drive-up service, which is great in the winters around here. Usually, there’s a cashier waiting, so I get right in line. They quickly scan all of the food, bag it up, and I walk outside to the car. I then drive up, they put it in the trunk for me, and I drive home. They have no crazy software weighing what I’ve bought, no security alarms going off causing some clerk to check my receipt against what I’ve purchased, nothing. When I’m done shopping there, I feel awesome. Consistently.

I’ve felt this way about the two stores for quite awhile, but Kathy Sierra’s talk finally gave me the tools to articulate the difference. Since the new Wal-Mart doesn’t have the self-checkout lanes, it might compete more effectively against Hornbachers, and they’ve probably done enough research to determine that the lanes aren’t effective.