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23 Nov

Do self-checkout systems really work as intended?

Imagine you’re throwing a housewarming party this weekend. You check the supplies at home and realise you need to go shopping.

Usually, you are okay with ordering groceries online but for the party, you want a few extra stocks of party plates, glasses, and the like. So, you decide to go to the closest supermarket.

Cut to the supermarket, you've now spent a couple of hours going around the store, adding stuff to your trolley. You sheepishly realize that you have probably exceeded your grocery quota for the month.

So, you start moving towards the billing counters, ready to check out. But as you arrive, you notice something unusual:

The long lines near the billing counter have disappeared. A service staff employee tells you that the store now has a self-checkout system that allows users to use their smartphones to scan products in their cart on the supermarket's own app and make the payment online.

Being happy at the prospect of not having to stand in a long queue, you fish out your smartphone, download the app, and start scanning items. The entire process along with the payment takes you about 5 minutes.

Easy peasy. But your happiness is short-lived.

As you move towards the exit, you now see a long queue, much longer than at any of those billing counters. At the front are two guards tallying the billed items with those in the shopper's carts.

You realize that they want you to self-checkout but they don't completely trust you with it. In the process, they have only managed to shift those 5 queues from those 5 billing counters to this single queue that is 5x long at the exit.

"So much for self-checkout," you mutter disappointingly under your breath as you stand in the queue, waiting for your turn.

But is this enough reason to cancel self-checkouts right off the bat?

Absolutely not. To develop some nuanced perspective, let's look at the history of self-checkout systems and evaluate where we are currently.

The first self-service grocery store

It was in Tennessee, USA on 6th September 1916 that the first self-service store, Piggly Wiggly, opened.

Before that, grocery stores did not allow customers to gather their goods. Instead, a customer would give a list of items to a clerk, who would then collect them throughout the store. This obviously didn't scale well with growing number of customers.

Piggly Wiggly introduced the innovation of allowing customers to go through the store, gathering their goods, thus cutting costs and lowering prices. It was the first grocery store to introduce customers to pick their own goods and introduce check-out stands as well as shopping carts. In fact, the present-day design of major storefronts, and supermarkets replicate the self-serve introduced by Piggly Wiggly.

In India though, with groceries specifically, we aren’t the ones to stock up in large quantities. We are also less likely to use a big supermarket to buy groceries because we have a decade-long account with the local Kirana store. But urban India increasingly mirrors the shopping experiences in the west. We now regularly buy in bulk from supermarkets like DMart, Metro, and Reliance Fresh. These stores are similar in design to the self-service at Piggly Wiggly.

When introduced, self-service promoted the notion of a customer’s independence, and their ability to make choices. It promoted the idea that a customer who had agency was the one to do business with — that a business wanted the customer to feel empowered.

And that same logic was furthered even when self-checkout machines were introduced.

But is empowerment the only reason to advocate for self-checkouts?

As a consumer, strolling past the long aisles in grocery stores is fun, and you do end up buying a few extra items than you originally planned. But for a supermarket, the wage bill incurred by employing 8-10 people tasked with billing is expensive. At least, that was the real reason for introducing self-checkouts.

Store owners felt that self-checkouts would reduce business costs, and also relax the biggest bottleneck at a supermarket — the never-ending billing lines.

The billing lines were a bottleneck from the customer as well as from a business standpoint. Self-checkouts seemed like the way out. The idea was that at a self-checkout machine, a customer wouldn’t have to wait in long queues to get done with their billing. There would be no crowding and chaos near the billing counters. The shopping experience would finally be “seamless.”

But is that what ended up happening?

In the case of self-checkouts, I believe that before you achieve a seamless output, you have to educate customers on how to use the technology and be able to trust your customers to be faithful and not steal.

For a customer, it could mean receiving easy-to-understand instructions on:

  1. How to use the self-checkout machine
  2. The different kinds of issues that could come up along with their resolutions, and
  3. Who they should go to in case of errors

For an employee, it could mean knowing how the machine works really well, understanding how to troubleshoot various problems, and having a backup ready in case of a system failure.

Also, technically, a supermarket can’t completely do away with a physical billing counter.

A customer could prefer to pay cash over digital payments or there could be an IT failure that stops the machines, or the app servers go down for an hour or two. In such cases, it helps to have physical offline billing as a backup option.

Technology helps create efficiency in systems. It can help relax bottlenecks. But ultimately, it is the solution you design that will determine if the bottleneck gets solved or in the process of introducing new tech, you have simply created a new one.

Let’s look at two examples of self-checkout options in the Indian context.

1. Train tickets in Mumbai

A machine that accepts coins and cash was the first stab at automating the process of ticketing for the Mumbai Locals. A Smart Card, which is now pre-loaded with cash is a new advancement over the first machine that was introduced.

The goal in both cases is to offer an alternative to the long ticket queues, a common feature in Mumbai during peak hours.

The idea? A person could pay directly to the machine and print their ticket to avoid the long queue.

In reality, however, what you will commonly observe is that the machine is usually operated by a person who helps you buy the tickets, much like you would if you stood at the original ticket window.

The image above shows the picture of an old uncle who went viral on social media for his finesse with using the machine. The same machine was aimed at individuals who could book tickets quickly without the need for a ticket window or long queues.

Now, a long queue still gets formed near the machine, and instead of a self-serve machine, you only have an extra ticket counter with a person handling the kiosk.

If you had 3 operating ticket counters in the past, you now have 4 of them. It makes a difference, sure, but it still doesn't scale quite seamlessly as the UTS app for example, that allows travelers to buy tickets using their own phones. But the system isn't widely adopted as it is prone to a lot of bugs and has a learning curve.

2. Decathlon

Shopping at Decathlon is certainly a thing I look forward to. During Diwali this year, I noticed that all the billing counters were now self-checkout kiosks.

A bit unsure, I used the kiosk but got stuck at the payment stage because I am not versed in using the card machine. I had to wait for a few minutes before someone came, and helped me with the same.

As I was making the payment, another man, probably aged 35-45, got furious at the staff, and shouted,

"Are you making me do more work here? What’s the point of this complication?"

His anger only worsened because he also had to wait at the exit for the guard to tally the bill with the products in the bag.

Sure enough, this may be a one-off instance and this irritation can’t be representative of all consumer behavior. But if you look up self-checkout experiences globally, where self-checkout is more common, a hint of this irritation seems universal.

Second-order effects of the self-checkout systems include but are not limited to:

  • Customers bagging the product even if the QR code doesn’t scan it
  • Tricking the system by exchanging labels between a highly and lowly-priced item to get the former at a cheaper rate
  • Mandatory presence of employees to aid elderly/non-tech-savvy shoppers
  • A feeling of doing unpaid labour

In sum, a technology which was introduced to enable a seamless consumer experience, and reduce costs of operation by reducing employees on a billing counter doesn’t fully achieve either. Rather, it gets reduced to an alternative option that exists alongside the traditional method of billing, making me a bit confused about which one is more effective.

This is where it helps to understand the Theory of Constraints.

The principle hinges on two fundamental assertions :

1. Every system has one bottleneck tighter than all the others, in the same way, a chain has only one weakest link.

2. The performance of the system as a whole is limited by the output of the tightest bottleneck or most limiting constraint.

‍In the case of retail stores, if the tightest bottleneck is long billing lines, which limits the throughput of the store as a whole, a solution is certainly required to fix the bottleneck.

But if introducing self-checkouts creates a system where two new constraints — learning curve and trust — get created, you only end up relaxing one bottleneck (queues at the billing counter) at the expense of creating a new bottleneck (the two guards at the exit). You end up making the system much worse.

It is only an optimization if it relaxes an existing bottleneck and doesn't create a new one. And is only effective when it is able to increase the total throughput of the system, i.e., the total number of customers the retail store can serve and process at peak hours.

Parting thoughts

When thinking about newer ways of optimization, I firmly believe that technology does have the power to make things better.

A feature like self-checkouts helped immensely at the time of COVID when contactless delivery and shopping were the norm. I am convinced that it is going to be the future of shopping.

But in its present implementation, it seems like technology has merely shifted where the bottleneck exists instead of helping eliminate it, giving rise to strong objections from the customers.

Such objections and buggy experiences only hinder the customer’s willingness to adopt the technology and climb that learning curve.

So, the next time you're thinking about introducing technology and automation in the system to increase its throughput, think whether the system you're implementing solves the existing problem or simply creates two new ones.

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