In Store

Self-Checkout? Just You Wait

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By Joyce Gemperlein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Pressure? You don't know pressure until you're in the self-checkout line at the grocery store and your cauliflower doesn't scan and freezes the computer and there's a line of shoppers shifting from foot to foot, heaving deep sighs and giving you the evil eye because, obviously, you are keeping them from attending to a matter of life and death, such as catching the "Sopranos" episode they forgot to TiVo.

That's why it is surprising to learn that many shoppers use self-checkout devices because they believe it will allow them to avoid delays and human interaction.

Au contraire . It has been my experience that there is no better way to interface with the grumpiest of the human race than to choose a self-checkout machine over a cashier with a heartbeat.

Self-checkout kiosks have been around since 1987, but they did not begin appearing -- and exclaiming at the worst possible times that "the bagging area is full" -- in large numbers until 2000.

For example, in June of that year, the Giant supermarket chain installed its first ones at its Severna Park store. Giant Food now has them in 168 of its 199 facilities, says Barry Scher, vice president of public relations for the chain, owned by Royal Ahold NV.

From Scher's perspective, things are fairly peachy at the DIY stations.

"They are very popular. They enable customers to get out of stores quicker," says Scher. "Sure, some [of the people who use them] prefer not to talk to checkout personnel, or maybe they are buying some health or beauty item" that they don't want a checker to see, he concedes.

Robbie Blinkoff is principal anthropologist and managing partner of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, which performs ethnographic fieldwork for insights into consumer behavior. He says people's eagerness to use a machine rather than talk to a person doesn't mean they don't value face-to-face encounters.

"Younger people [who are computer-savvy] have discovered which situations are face-to-face-worthy and which are not. For them, a grocery store transaction does not qualify," Blinkoff says.

Greg Buzek has numbers on some of that.

Buzek, president of the retail research firm IHL Consulting Group in Franklin, Tenn., is in the middle of updating a year-old study on consumer attitudes toward self-checkout kiosks. His research shows that 21 percent of the 19-to-35-year-olds polled -- people who may have never known the queenly feeling of having an attendant pump the gas, wash the windshield and ask if there is anything else they'd like -- indicate that they use self-checkouts because they just don't want to deal with people.

Only 14 percent of 36-to-55-year-olds say they balk at the human factor; above that age, 95 percent of customers queried apparently ache to exchange pleasantries with a cashier about the rump roast they are buying.


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