With technology ever-changing, there is a divide between generations about whether developments, such as self-service checkouts, are improving customers’ shopping experiences.
Self-service tills gained their popularity in the early 2000’s, as a way to save time by reducing queues for customers and cut costs for businesses. However, after the Covid-19 pandemic, many customers are still longing for social interaction whilst shopping, so the idea of using these tills has become increasingly unpopular, with a study showing that 93% of people do not like them.
A survey by Super Office found that the most important attribute of the customer experience is fast response times, with only 37% of respondents saying the most important attribute was a person to speak with. This suggests that self-checkout could be a way to improve customer experiences through convenience and speed.
But with more shops implementing them, are customers and businesses going to face more problems than advantages?
Different types of self-service tills
Nowadays there are a range of different types of self-service tills, with express retail self-checkout counters being the most common in supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Marks & Spencer have recently added these types of tills in their clothing and homeware shops, after their success in the M&S food hall. There are also ‘self-scanners’ or ‘smart shop’ options, where customers can scan their items as they go around the shop, paying at the end without having to scan everything at once. This type of self-checkout is effective in keeping an eye on how much you have spent, which in times of a cost-of-living crisis and with the pandemic, it’s not hard to see why they’re proving popular with consumers.
Some shops are adapting the style of self-checkout tills to RFID scanners. This is where customers can drop all their items in a box at the checkout or walk through a gate and the technology automatically picks up what the items are. In some places customers do not even need to take the shopping out of their trolley. Bershka in Liverpool City Centre is one of the many shops to implement this, where customers even have to remove their own security tag once they have paid.
Although technology is changing very quickly and can have many advantages for large companies, some shoppers are unhappy with the advancements.
Just searching for the term ‘self-service checkouts’ on Twitter brings up hundreds of negative comments:
“At a time when so many people are desperate for human connection, why do any large retailers insist on operating more self-service tills while promoting a cashless, humanness hellscape? It’s as if they don’t care about their customers (or staff).” (Eleanor Tweeted)
“Today everything is awful: my local M&S has introduced banks of self-service pay points for clothes. No banter with the till ladies, no neat folding of items, no expert bag choice (never too big, never too small). No one asked me if I wanted my receipt in the bag. I hate it.” (Jane Tweeted)
It seems like the main issue with self-service tills is the idea that they are ‘self’ service. People are not served by a cashier who may ask them about their day and engage in conversation, an aspect much valued by some people when shopping. Especially during the isolation of the pandemic, shopping was the only social interaction some people had, and that may still be the case for a few.
Self-checkouts can also be viewed as taking away jobs, as supermarkets may not need as many staff to run the tills; this is because one employee could oversee around eight tills rather than the usual one employee per till.
In the Amazon Go shops, due to no checkouts, little human interaction is needed, and employees would only be needed to restock shelves. Again, in times of a cost-of-living crisis, this potential rise in unemployment is a cause for concern and may explain why some are currently finding it difficult to get a job.
Another cause for concern is the idea that self-service tills are inaccessible for some people. Those with visual impairments may not be able to see the screen and in some cases, those in wheelchairs cannot reach the self-checkouts as they are too high up. This may become a problem if there are no staff around to help, and could isolate these people completely – stopping them from shopping independently as they would need to rely on somebody else to assist them. They may also be harder for elderly people to use; a study by Age UK found that nearly two million over-75’s in England are digitally excluded. This means that tech illiteracy is high in the older generations, another group that may become more excluded and isolated from using self-service tills as they may find them more difficult to use, thus avoiding them entirely.
From a business point of view, shoplifting could be a huge problem with self-checkout. A study estimated that one third of shoppers, who use self-service tills, fail to pay for all of their items; whether that be intentionally or accidentally, as they may have thought they scanned an item but it didn’t go through. Others may take advantage by pretending to scan items, which is a problem because most of these tills are unmanned – with a shop assistant overlooking around eight checkouts at a time so it could be easy to miss.
Although there are problems to having self-service tills, it is clear that there are also many advantages, mainly for companies and consumers.
Firstly, according to research by NRF 2023, 60% of respondents said that technology simplifies the self-checkout process, creating a faster shopping experience with less waiting time. Most shoppers want to get in and out as quickly as possible, with self-checkout tills taking up less space, this means there can be more available for customers to use, and less likely to spend time waiting in queues.
Another advantage is that staff can spend more time on the shop floor, helping customers with queries and shopping whereas for manned tills, they would have to stand and wait for a customer to come to them. This frees up time to create a better shopping environment as workers could be tidying or stocking shelves, making sure that customers have a nice experience in store and basing their tasks on the customers’ needs.
Those who struggle with anxiety, specifically social anxiety, may also prefer self-service tills as they do not have to interact with others. The idea of using self-checkouts could put them at ease, making them feel more relaxed and more likely to come into a shop which has these implemented.
With the cost-of-living crisis still looming over the UK, self-scanners can provide a good picture about how much you spend whilst shopping, another advantage of using them. Shoppers will be able to stick to a budget, and they can see exactly how much they have spent which could help save money in the long-run and reduce anxiety about food bills.
The future of shopping?
Amazon Go is one of the only shops which provides an experience where customers can place items in their bag and cameras in the store track what they have picked up, without having to scan anything. The main advantage of this is that there are little to no queues in store, however, some have privacy concerns about being watched as they shop.
Amazon One is another technological advancement, changing the way people shop. Only launched in America at the moment, Amazon One lets people use their palm to pay for shopping by recognising people’s identity, including payment details, through their unique prints. This gives people another option where they can ‘Just Walk Out’ without waiting in line to check out by scanning their palm as they enter the shop and being charged automatically when they leave.
Amazon have also introduced enrolment kiosks at stores where people can set up their palm recognition in less than a minute. This may raise concerns about who has access to the biometrics for the hand payments. If the system was compromised and a hacker got ahold of it, they could potentially have access to people’s bank accounts.
China have also introduced a similar way of paying. Tencent Holdings, a Chinese technology company have launched palm payments in Beijing as a way for metro passengers to pay for their journey. An advantage of using this method is that if people forget their bank cards or phones, they are still able to travel. China seems to be ahead of the curve with new payment technology, introducing the world’s first facial recognition payment system, called ‘Smile to Pay’ in 2017 and now almost being a completely cashless society due to the new technology.
It is clear that the UK still have a lot of catching up to do with the likes of China and America, but although we may be evolving slowly, this is still too fast for some people who want shopping experiences to remain the same, arguably because there was nothing wrong with the way we shop in the first place.
Overall, self-service checkouts have both pros and cons, but is technology moving so fast that they will take over our shopping experiences or will we still be able to have a chat with a shop assistant as we are buying our groceries?