5 Ways to Implement Self-Checkouts Right

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David Stepaniuk

Jul 20, 2021 • 9 min read
Payment terminal

Self-checkouts have been a boon for retailers striving to increase the speed and efficiency of their checkout processes.

When implemented well, these automated assistants have the potential to increase employee productivity, reduce costs, boost customer satisfaction, and can be a source of competitive advantage.

At the same time, COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior with increased demand for contactless services, and it looks like the impact will be long-lasting.

In the US, 79% of consumers intend to continue or increase their usage of self-checkouts in retail beyond the pandemic, according to a report by McKinsey.

But simply installing self-checkouts doesn’t guarantee success. If implemented in the wrong way, self-checkouts could do more harm than good – at best, customers won’t use them, and at worst, they may take their business to your competitors.

So how do you make sure your self-checkouts deliver the benefits you expect? Here are five key points to work through, plus some real-world examples from companies pushing the boundaries of exceptional automated shopping experiences.

Getting self-checkouts right

Giving customers a self-checkout option is one thing, but it’s not nearly as important as providing a good self-checkout option. According to a report by Raydiant, 25% of consumers revealed they would choose not to use self-service checkouts because they’ve had bad experiences, and 67% reported at least one fail while using them.

Speed, ease of use, and reliability are critical factors in meeting customer expectations, but they’re not the only considerations in getting the full potential out of your self-checkouts.

You need to employ great design, use data to inform decisions, take advantage of opportunities to increase sales, follow best practices, and focus on the system that’s right for your business.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Design, design, design

Whether you’re starting from scratch or looking to make improvements to an existing self-checkout area, design is critical. It’s worth investing the time to get it right from the beginning. To maximize self-checkout adoption, customer satisfaction, and ultimately revenue, the goal is to understand the customer journey from entry to exit and remove points of friction. Design thinking and a human-centered approach can help with this.

Start by developing a full understanding of your customer and their pain points, and use data analysis and customer journey mapping to enrich your assessment. Then design a prototype and test your ideas to eliminate any possible friction before investing in a solution.

In the context of maximizing self-checkout adoption, this could involve using point-of-sale data to model various checkout scenarios, observing and interviewing customers, and testing prototypes based on the research findings. Once you’ve uncovered exactly how self-checkouts can address your customers’ pain points, you can design a solution tailored to their needs. Product Design Sprints are a good way to do this quickly and effectively.

2. Use data to optimize customer experience and increase adoption

Whichever way you approach the design phase, remember that it should be an iterative process. Monitor the solutions you implement, collect data on customer behavior, and use that data to make continuous improvements to your self-checkout experience.

Examine interventions – what are the most common types? Can they be eliminated? In this scenario, you may need to consider the trade-off between accuracy and keeping customers happy.

For example, after too many ‘wait for assistance’ messages negatively impacted its customer experience, Walmart disabled its bagging area scales. Along with other retailers, the company is betting on video systems that better identify mis-scanned items and raise queries only when necessary.

You can also analyze metrics such as card versus cash or correlations between basket size and checkout type (self-checkout versus assisted) to optimize for adoption.

3. Always be there to help

While the aim of self-checkouts in the future may be to take humans out of the equation, the technology is not there yet. It is a good practice to always have at least one well-trained staff member on hand to assist customers with any problems or queries, and this is a policy observed by many retailers.

As your optimization measures successfully reduce the number of interventions, it may be possible to down-size the number of staff members needed. But bear in mind that customers will likely be comforted by and expect to see at least one person waiting to assist them if required.

4. Capitalize on opportunities

Self-checkouts are more than just a tool or a way to speed customers through your checkout process.

Kiosks double as digital salespeople and are highly customizable, allowing you to connect with customers and non-aggressively present discounts, cross-sells, and upsells or communicate brand messaging. For example, you could make personalized recommendations or suggest complementary products based on the customer’s current basket.

Many retailers have also experimented with different voices to strike the right balance between friendly and assertive. But beware of gimmicks. In the UK, Marks and Spencer attracted a flood of negative press when it introduced the voices of Britain’s Got Talent judges to guide customers through the checkout process. Similarly, Tesco’s attempt to inject some festive spirit into its checkout experience with Santa roaring "Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!” was also poorly received.

5. Don’t implement self-checkouts at all

Technology is changing rapidly and we’re already two steps ahead. There are numerous possibilities now, like grab and go and self-scan and go. The best way to maximize the benefits of self-checkouts may actually be not to implement them at all.

Of course, we’re not totally serious. Which solution you offer will depend on what’s right for your business and your customers’ expectations.

An RFID-based system can vastly speed up the checkout process and is a great option if your business model features low-volume, high-value products, but it’s not ideal if you sell groceries. Or you could go to the other end of the spectrum and completely remove physical checkouts as Amazon has done with Amazon Go.

The company now has almost 30 stores using a technology dubbed ‘Just Walk Out.’ Through a combination of computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning, customers are able to take items from the shelf and leave without visiting a physical checkout.

Bear in mind, though, that while driving adoption of a new solution may be a worthy goal, it’s important to give customers freedom of choice.

If customers feel they are being forced to use a particular option or do the job of a cashier to help a store cut costs, they may shop elsewhere. Depending on your business, you could consider a mix of self-checkouts, assisted checkouts, scan and go, and assisted express lanes.

And finally, don’t be afraid to shelve an idea that’s not w orking for you. In 2018, after a long and expensive trial, Walmart ditched its Scan & Go program due to low customer satisfaction and negative feedback surrounding its confusing process.

Looking to the future of self-checkouts

So does this spell the end for human cashiers? The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that advances in technology could cause the number of cashier jobs in the US to fall faster than overall retail workers. But it’s unlikely that retail assistant jobs will become obsolete; they will just evolve.

Walmart, for example, is testing a new store in Arkansas that has no traditional checkout lanes, opting instead for an open area of checkout bays. Employees are still present, but they're deployed differently. If a customer wants to serve themselves, they can, and if they want an associate to check them out, a staff member rings up their items at the new terminal. This leaves employees free to focus on individual customers’ needs and higher-value tasks.

Both of these examples highlight the central importance of customer experience. Whatever system or combination of checkout options you implement, the key to maximizing revenue is resolving customers’ pain points. Do this well, and you will reap the benefits.

Photo of David Stepaniuk

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David Stepaniuk

Former Senior Innovation Consultant at Netguru
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