Shoppers unfamiliar with the practice, however, or those who have tried it before and were inconvenienced, are often reluctant to self-check. They reason that a cashier can do it more quickly and efficiently, and they want to avoid making a mistake that will force them to request help from a staffer — and hold up the line. But everyone can become a self-checkout pro. All you have to do is follow these tips.
Know the basics
A typical self-check stand contains a touch-screen monitor, bar-code scanner/weighing scale, bag stand, payment module and credit card pad. Shoppers are guided by images on the touch screen and a recorded voice prompt to scan, bag and pay. A “help” button summons a store attendant.
Learn the sequencing
Every retailer is different, so you may have to ask an attendant for the order of checkout steps. Most want you to scan any loyalty cards or input your phone number first. If you’re using manufacturers’ coupons, you may need to scan those before beginning the payment process; however, some companies ask you to use coupons after you’re ready to pay but before inserting final payment.
Size up your basket
Self-checkout is the most efficient option on express-size orders of 15 items or fewer. Because most self-check bagging areas are small, if your cart is more than half full, it’s probably best to opt for the regular line.
As tempting as it can be, you don’t have to be a scanning speed demon. Self-check registers are multitasking computers and must perform a number of functions — identifying the product, calculating the price, weighing the item, applying any discount — before they can move from one item to the next. “Each time you scan an item, let the system ‘think’ for a second or two and then continue. It sounds strange, but this really helps speed the process,” says Donna Thomas, a former cashier and now director of front-end operations for Albertsons Companies, one of the largest food retailers in the United States.
That’s retailer lingo for actions that cause errors requiring a store employee to clear the mistake. The No. 1 reason for an intervention: weight errors. (See below for how to avoid them.) Interventions are also triggered when you buy age-restricted items such as tobacco or alcohol, or service-type items such as propane tanks, rug cleaners and gift cards. If you’re in a hurry, you may want to use the regular lane or customer service desk for such purchases.
Watch the weight
Weight errors occur when scales in the bagging area sense an unexpected shift in weight. Often, the register stops scanning and announces, “Please remove the last item,” because it thinks you’ve added something without scanning it first. What causes this scolding? It’s often your children, who unwittingly lean against or touch the scales; sometimes it’s shoppers who brush the scales with a coat or purse. Although bagging scales are highly sensitive, sometimes they aren’t sensitive enough. If you buy a super-light item such as a greeting card or a pack of gum, you may need to shake the bag or tap the bagging scale so it registers the added weight. Otherwise, you’ll hear the dreaded, “Please place your item in the bagging area,” even though you have already done so.
Fill your cart, bags smartly
Organizing your cart will help at checkout and at home. Aly Hathcock, a shopper for grocery delivery service Shipt in Birmingham, Ala., categorizes items first by weight, putting the bulkiest ones, such as cans and cartons of soda, at the rear of her grocery cart to keep heavy items from squashing eggs or fragile produce. She then organizes by temperature (hot or cold) and type (meat, cereal, produce, toiletries) so similar items can be bagged together and more efficiently unloaded at home. (Raw meat and poultry should be wrapped in plastic before being put in the cart so juices don’t get on the scanner or other groceries. You should also separate cleaning supplies from foodstuffs.) One of Hathcock’s best tips: Bag cereal boxes and similar items parallel to instead of perpendicular to the bag handles, so you can fit more boxes into the bag. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works.
Prepare for the scanner
For large or heavy items, the register will allow you to forgo the scales and keep the items in your cart while you use the handheld scanner. The trick is ensuring that all bar codes are visible and easy to reach. For example, if you are at a hardware store buying two dozen pieces of lumber, stack them so the bar codes are on the same end, Adams says.
Mind the bar codes, PLUs
Every item has either a UPC (Universal Product Code) bar code, which you scan, or a PLU (Price Look-Up) number, which you input. You’ll find PLUs on some produce, as well as on bulk items, ice or food from soup, salad and dinner bars. With produce, you’ll input the PLU from the sticker and either weigh the item or type in the quantity. No sticker? Touch the quick look-up option for a list of items typically without bar codes and scroll through, or you can type in the name of the item. For instance, type in B-A-N and bananas pop up. For products in the bulk section, you’ll find either a scale that prints a coded label there, which you’ll scan at checkout, or a tag upon which to write the PLU, which you’ll input at checkout. If your store sells both regular and organic produce, be sure you use the correct item code, says Chris Tansey, lead front-end specialist overseeing cashiers and registers for Stop & Shop, which operates more than 400 grocery stores in the Northeast.
Pay attention to the screen
Thomas puts it nicely when saying, “It’s easier to pay attention and be efficient if you are ‘present’ while self-checking,” meaning this is not the time to also be chatting on the phone. Scanners aren’t foolproof. You need to focus as each item scans to ensure you are paying the correct price, especially if that item is on sale. Keep watch, because “three for $10” may not show up until all three items are scanned. Confirm that coupons are applied. If you pay with cash, grab your change. It’s easier to correct an error while you’re still in transaction mode. Once you pay, any adjustments must be done at the customer service desk, which defeats the expediency of self-check.
If you're still nervous . . .
Try self-check during non-busy store hours. Ask an attendant to walk you through the process. “Self-check is like riding a bike,” Tansey says. “The first time you may fall off, but each time you get on, it gets better, and you can go faster.”