Self-checkout (also known as self-service checkout and as semi-attended customer-activated terminal, SACAT) machines provide a mechanism for customers to process their own purchases from a retailer. They are an alternative to the traditional cashier-staffed checkout. The customer performs the job of the cashier themselves, by scanning the items' barcodes and then paying for the items by inserting cash into the machine, or entering payment card information.
In self-checkout systems, the customer is typically required to:
- Scan product barcodes where these exist
- Weigh products (such as fresh produce) without barcodes and select the variety on a touchscreen display.
- Place all scanned items into a "bagging area". The weight observed in the bagging area is verified against previously stored information to ensure that the correct item is bagged, allowing the customer to proceed only if the observed and expected weights match.
Machines in different retailers may accept card via EFTPOS, debit/credit cards, electronic food assistance cards, cash via coin slot, bank note scanner, and in-store gift cards (where applicable). Most coupons also have barcodes and can be scanned the same way that items are scanned, although some require entry by a member of staff.
There is typically a staff member supervising a group of self-checkouts who will assist customers when required, and authorise the sale of age-restricted products such as medicines, alcohol, knives and tobacco.
The benefit to the retailer in providing self-checkout machines is in reduced labour costs: one attendant can often run four to six checkout lanes with the work of the cashier now being assumed by the customer. The size of a self-checkout machine is also smaller than a traditional checkout manned by a cashier; thus, a store can save space, which could be used for more shelves, display cabinets, or additional checkouts.
Customers who do not want to interact with the cashier can use the self-checkout.
Self-checkout can also sometimes be faster than using a cashier lane. This can reduce the length of checkout lines and wait times. In a survey by NCR, 42% of customers said they liked the convenience of self-checkout, while 39% said it was faster than the cashier-assisted line. 90% of those surveyed responded as being users of self-checkout, with 7% of respondents saying they will always use self-checkout regardless of store lines and number of items. Survey respondents in Italy and Australia said they "always use self-checkout" at a rate of 13% and 9% respectively.
One advantage is that self-checkouts can, if the necessary investment is made, provide a partly multilingual service. (It cannot be fully bilingual unless the goods themselves are labelled in all the relevant languages, which is often not the case.) For example, Tesco's Welsh stores which can serve customers in Welsh, whereas finding enough fluent Welsh-speakers as staff can be difficult because in some areas only a small proportion of local people have Welsh as their first language.
Self-checkout is vulnerable to some shoplifting techniques. In some cases the machine will pick up the attempt to steal, or cause the shopper to alter their behavior (e.g. an item can be put not on the scales but somewhere else where it should not be put, and this may be noticed by the system supervisor). For example, in 2007, a man was charged with replacing the tag of a plasma TV with a $4.88 DVD, and trying to purchase it through self-checkout.
Studies suggest that a large proportion of shoppers are tempted to shoplift due to the relative ease of fooling self-checkouts. For example, a person who (initially without intent to steal) does not scan an item, may remember that this was easy, and fail to scan other items deliberately. A 2012 survey with 4,952 respondents in the UK found that a third of shoppers had stolen this way, with a quarter of the remainder stating they were deterred by the risk of detection. Non-barcode items such as produce, and store staff overriding (or ignoring) checkout alerts, were singled out as vulnerabilities, and poverty was not seen as a major factor.
The founder of one store video surveillance system estimated that "Theft—intentional or not—is up to five times higher with self checkout than when cashiers are working", although behaviour of shoplifters is becoming well known, and stores are now better at shoplifting detection. A 2014 survey in[where?] of 2,634 respondents confirmed the same general findings, but commented that the cost of additional theft was evidently seen as "tolerable" compared to the cost of other processes, such as manned checkouts, and harm due to poorer customer service arising from the slowness of manned versus automated checkouts.
Self-checkouts are also criticized for reducing the possibilities for customers and store staff to interact, and adversely affecting customer service in general. Self-checkout lanes may lack some rather basic customer interactions, like informing the customer that a coupon was not accepted, and why.
Customers have often complained about the repeated robotic-sounding messages coming from self-service checkouts. In 2015, supermarket Tesco replaced the robotic announcements with more human-sounding voice prompts.
Retailers have been known to use novelty voices for their self-service checkouts. For example, discount store Poundland has used the voices of Yoda, Elvis Presley, Count Dracula and Father Christmas on various occasions. In 2019, Marks & Spencer replaced its regular checkout announcers with the voices of Ant McPartlin, Declan Donnelly, Alisha Dixon and Amanda Holden during the 2019 edition of Britain's Got Talent. The new voices led to an increase in customer complaints about the automated system, with many questioning the appropriateness of some of the comments.
Being more complex, self-checkouts are more prone to failure. For example, they use scales to weigh goods in the bagging area, and, if the scale fails, the machine does not work. Also, in a manned checkout lane, any simple problems like lack of receipt paper would be immediately fixed by the operator, while self-checkouts may not be fixed for quite some time. This lack of reliability can be compensated for by having excess lanes available or enough staff on hand to perform immediate maintenance. They can also be prone to false “Unexpected item in bagging area” alerts when an item that was scanned gets put into the bagging area and after that it comes up with a message saying the item that was just placed was unexpected, or a coat flapping onto it and causing the error that way.
Scanning while shopping
An alternative system (self-scanning) consists of a portable barcode scanner that is used by the customer to scan and bag items while shopping. When the customer has finished shopping, the scanner is brought to a checkout kiosk, where the information from the barcode scanner is downloaded to the kiosk, usually in conjunction with a customer loyalty card. The customer pays and receives a receipt at the checkout kiosk. The integrity of the system is maintained through the use of random audits or RFID. The Walmart-owned warehouse club, Sam's Club, allows customers to download an app and scan items into their cart using a mobile application. In summer 2018, Walmart China launched its Wechat-based "Scan and Go" program, allowing customers to scan items into their carts without downloading another mobile app, while paying through Wechat Payment or Alipay. The "Scan and Go"program carried 30% of all payments made in Chinese stores, and even improved sales in certain markets by 10%.
In December 2016, Amazon announced a bricks and mortar store in Seattle under the name Amazon Go, which uses a variety of cameras and sensors in order to see what customers are putting into their shopping bags. The customers scan a QR code when they enter the store through a companion app, which is linked to their Amazon.com account. When the customer exits the store, the items in their bag are automatically charged to the account.
Suppliers like ITAB, NCR, Wincor-Nixdorf, and others have manufactured hybrid checkout systems that allows the checkout counter to be switched between either a cashier operated mode or a customer self-service mode.
RFID based system
Several experimental stores in China use a combination of RFID and cameras to determine which products a customer has picked. Upon leaving, the customer passes through an RFID-reading gate and only has to pay the bill to checkout.
An appeal court in California confirmed in September 2013 a bill banning sales of alcoholic beverages in self-service checkouts. The law requires alcohol only to be sold in face-to-face transactions with store clerks.
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- Automated retailing
- Cash register
- Point of sale
- Radio-frequency identification
- Shadow work
- Smart stores
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