Once at Costco, I went through the self-checkout lane.
An unusually helpful clerk came over and kindly rang up the items in my basket for me.
When I got home, I looked at the receipt and saw that she had failed to charge me for a $50 boneless prime rib, so I got it for free.
Was I honest enough to go back to Costco and point out the error? I was not.
I’m reminded of this episode by a newly released study from retail marketing specialist Catalina on the popularity of self-checkout (SCO) versus manned checkout (MCO) lanes.
Although complaints abound about self-checkout lines, the study found that “customers prefer to use both checkout options, depending on their shopper profile and purchase occasion.”
Stores that utilize both options have the highest retention rates and best customer value.
The number of self-checkout lanes has increased by 10 percent over the last years, the largest increases being in major grocery chains, where they make up 38 percent of lanes.
Catalina found that although self-checkout accounted for 38 percent of transactions, it produced only 24 percent of sales. “SCO-only shoppers had smaller baskets and bought less than hybrid and MCO fans.
“SCO-only customers either do not pantry load—or they pantry load in other channels, such as mass retailers on online” (or, possibly, manned checkout lanes in the same stores).
Catalina also outlined “shopper segment profiles.”
The people who used manned checkout only tended to have “no high school diploma” and be composed of “older people 65+ years,” with a household income of less than $100,000.
Their affinities: caffeine, quick meal, and cage-free seekers; and fish, fragrance, partially hydrogenated oil avoiders.
Self-checkout-only users—those who employ both options—tended to be younger adults. They seek out natural flavors, organic items, and natural sweeteners. They avoid tree nuts, paraben, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial preservatives and sweeteners, and high-fructose corn syrup. They also tended to have a “vegetarian lifestyle.”
Hybrid users, who use both manned and self-checkout options, tended to have household incomes over over $100,000 and were “ingredient conscious seekers.”
The study concluded that “a hybrid model—of self-checkout and manned checkout—will improve customer experience enabling cost efficiency over the long term.” (I suppose my experience at Costco was the ultimate hybrid experience.)
Being a typical shopper, I have to reflect on my own practices. I’m a hybrid user, I suppose, but generally only for a few purchases—the usual gallon of milk, carton of eggs, and so on.
When things get more complicated, I prefer to turn them over to a human clerk, even if the line is longer.
When do things get complicated? Not always with a large number of items, but certainly with ones that are trickier to read on the typical self-scanner.
Prominent among these are fruits and vegetables. I have a translucent plastic bag full of three apples. With the self-checkout option, I don’t feel like groping through the bag to scan the little labels on each one. I’m going to let a clerk do that. In fact, they often have trouble putting those items through the scanner themselves.
Packaged items—a clamshell of blueberries, say—don’t present the same problem, because the UPC is usually prominently shown on the front label.
All this suggests that loose produce items would discourage self-checkout options, while packaged produce items would be neutral toward them.
To the extent that fruits and vegetables are going to be sold as bulk items, then, it is probably good news that supermarkets are likely to continue with both self-checkout and manned checkout options.