Self-Checkout? Just You Wait
The Line With No Cashier Has the Most Impatient Customers

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.

Buzek says there is a strong correlation between those who regularly use self-checkout in stores and people who have gotten their airplane tickets at machines in airport terminals, where it is easy to find yourself in line behind someone with eight suitcases and many troubling travel issues to discuss with a ticket agent.

"Basically, the more you are accustomed to interfacing with a computer, the more you like it," Buzek says.

Of course. And, clearly, many of us love using self-checkout kiosks. Nationwide, revenue at the kiosks doubled from 2003 to about $161 billion in 2004, Buzek's firm reports. Information technology industry experts predict that number will reach $454 billion in 2008.

Yes, yes, but . . .

A few months ago at my supermarket, one shopper in a line of people (who presumably were trying to avoid other people or get out of the store quickly) loudly threatened to call the cops when another in the speed self-checkout took 26 or so items into the 15-item line even though she did not know how to use the machine. It did not help her case that she was multi-tasking on her cellphone during her entire bumbling transaction.

In April, police in Texas charged a shopper with criminal mischief after he punched and shattered the screen of a checkout terminal that had frozen twice in the middle of his order.

At a Home Depot self-service checkout -- mind you, many people are actually carrying hammers and sharp implements here -- a man bad-mouthed me when my teensie batteries and two bolts did not register their weight on the self-checkout machine and the human "intervener" had wandered off to help another customer.

Yes, when a grocery store employee comes to help you because his robot counterpart has had a fit, it is aptly called an "intervention."

Phil Lempert, a food industry marketing analyst whose moniker is the Supermarket Guru, says that many people find self-checkout machines easy and fun, especially when there are no lines, but interventions are necessary because "it is old technology . . . almost Rube Goldberg-like" compared with new hand-held scanners that shoppers carry with them as they pick up groceries. These are being tested in markets around the country.

One of the benefits of a hand-held system, he says, is that nobody is waiting in a line for someone to figure out how to work a machine.

"The bottom line is that nobody likes to wait on line," he says.

Interventions -- and, it follows, bottled-up lines -- don't happen as often in hardware stores, says Paco Underhill, president and chief executive of Envirosell, a behavioral market research firm.

Underhill, who has written several books on what shoppers want and how they act, thinks another problem is that the checkout machines of today were all engineered by males, "Silicon Valley geeks designing for Silicon Valley geeks," rather than by multi-tasking mothers.

"In general, where self-checkout has worked best is where there are people making almost ritual purchases -- a Home Depot, for example. Small contractors, for example, have gotten used to the system there, and using it is an everyday thing."

That makes sense. But I can't help agreeing with Michael Banks, partner-owner of Select Marketing LLC, an international marketing company based in Las Vegas.

In an online discussion on RetailWire about long lines and customers' relationships with self-checkout machines, Banks brushed aside talk of high-tech glitches and got down to basics:

"The #1 way to speed checkouts," he wrote, "is to slap shoppers upside the head and remind them of where they are.

"Are you going to write a check? Then have it pre-written (except for the amount) and have your pen in hand to fill in the remaining information. You've got plenty of time to do this as you wait for other idiots to check out. Are you going to pay in cash? Then have it in your freakin' hand. Are you going to use plastic? Then be familiar with how it works: Swipe it according to directions. . . . Speaking of purses, don't take forever to reload all the crap you've removed from your purse during your transaction. Think of the people behind you, and toss it into your purse for later reorganization."

I could not reach Bank for further comment on this sound advice. Undoubtedly he is standing in a self-checkout line, fuming while someone buying an avocado for the first time tries to figure out which icon to push.

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