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The Self-Checkout – the Last-Ditch Effort Before the No-Checkout Stores of the Future?

12 minute read

Irreversible Changes

You don’t really need to be a prophet to claim that self-service checkouts have come to stay. However, this realization has brought about a plethora of reactions.

Retail employee unions point out that stores intentionally direct customers to self-checkouts, keeping staffed checkouts empty. This will lead to cashiers losing their jobs.

With technology taking over many tasks, people without a college degree need to start figuring out what their next job is going to be. Huffington Post relates the prediction of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that the number of cashiers will decrease by about 1%, i.e. approximately 30,000 people, in the US over the period of 2016 to 2026. This might not seem like a lot, but their forecast didn’t take into account the jump in the self-checkouts popularity in 2016 and 2017. Thus, there is a reason to believe that the number of unemployed cashiers will increase quicker than anticipated.

The reason why shoppers are accepting the self-checkout increasingly more is simple – it’s the only contemporary innovation that can reduce the length of queues. Privacy is another important factor – what you buy is nobody’s business.

Granted, a popular TV channel proved during their test that people make mistakes at the self-checkout and actually spend longer scanning the items than a cashier would. But if we draw parallels with online banking, it’s safe to say it takes some time to get used to new tech. We used to be able to talk about a handful of heavy users, but once critical mass is achieved, the tech will reach the masses.

The store also benefits from this development – the buyers do the cashiers’ work and now one employee is enough to manage 6–8 if not more self-checkouts (removing the alcohol restriction, helping customers, routine checks, etc.), helping the store significantly save on labor costs. The self-service checkouts also take up considerably less space than staffed checkouts. While one customer is scanning and bagging their items, the staff can help those that can’t find what they’re looking for in the shop. The larger the store, the more common confusion is. As an added boon, self-service checkouts can serve customers in a variety of languages.

Technological Development

Manufacturers have significantly improved self-checkouts over the three decades since their inception. The latest models of the biggest manufacturer in the industry, NCR, no longer use a weight-based control system and instead make use of smart scanners that recognize the products. This means that you no longer have to search for a specific fruit when you’re weighing it; instead, the machine will prompt a short list of options of what it presumes is on the scale. This reduces instances of theft, where products are swapped after weighing. The device detects when a bottle of wine is placed on the packing area instead of a beer bottle.

Two technical solutions dominate. One, where the items are scanned immediately before exiting the store, and another that makes use of portable scanners that allow the customer to scan items while browsing and place the scanned items directly in their shopping bag.

Smartphone-based solutions that make use of a specific app or WeChat are also gaining popularity.

Despite consistent improvements, self-checkouts are not comfortable. The buyer has to scan items one at a time, making sure not to skip anything, and then pay for the purchase. Some buyers will actually go out and say that they’d like to get paid for doing the cashier’s job.

With people with a tech background showing interest in the industry in recent years, new and innovative self-checkout systems that go beyond the POS and completely transform physical stores have begun cropping up. While NCR and Toshiba are currently the biggest names in the self-checkout industry, companies like Zippin, Standard Cognition or Amazon might very well take their place in five or ten years.

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