As brick-and-mortar grocery stores look to catch up with the eCommerce innovations of the past 16 months, self-checkout is on the rise.
Whether this takes the form of self-service kiosks or of computer-vision enabled “Just Walk Out” payment systems, retailers are looking to give customers a quicker and more frictionless checkout experience.
A February report highlighted in PYMNTS’ Digitizing Unattended Retail Payments study found that almost half of all consumers report that they use self-checkout “basically all the time,” and that six out of 10 consumers have been using self-checkout more often than they did at the start of 2020. To capture this rising interest, grocers need to be sure that their self-checkout solutions keep pace with consumers’ evolving expectations.
“We’re at kind of an inflection point right now,” Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions Vice President of Business Strategy Kirk Goldman told PYMNTS in reference to the self-service hardware and software solutions the company makes. “I think we’re at the start of this third wave where retailers have gotten a lot smarter about what they’re doing, and they’re starting to experiment a little bit more.”
This new shift comes in the wake of the first wave in the mid aughts that featured early versions of self-checkout placed at the end of stores with difficult-to-use interfaces, which, understandably, did not catch on. The second wave, Goldman said, featured smarter store placement, better user experience (UX), as well as some mobile integrations, leading to more widespread adoption. Now, retailers and technology providers are trying out even more new possibilities.
With this new wave, the self-checkout space is becoming more varied.
“We’re seeing more form factors of self-service devices,” said Goldman. He cited systems in which shoppers load their cart through their mobile devices and check out at a kiosk, as well as Just Walk Out systems, larger capacity self-checkout lanes, hybrid self/attended checkout, and initiatives to assist customers with bagging to prevent bottlenecks.
One sticking point for self-checkout in grocery is produce since, say, a tomato does not come with a barcode. These items take time to log, creating friction. Now, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled produce recognition software can identify fruits and vegetables and display items they might be, allowing shoppers to select from the given options rather than input from scratch. Features such as these cut down on total checkout time and make the process more efficient.
“The result is you’re greatly improving the shopper experience,” said Goldman.
The Digital Ordering/Self-Checkout Link
Grocery jobs are down. In June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported Friday (July 2), jobs in food and beverage stores were down by 13,000, following 26,000 jobs lost in May, and 47,000 in April.
Goldman noted that the issue is “twofold”: not only are grocers understaffed, struggling to fill open positions, but there is also, in many cases, more work to be done. Given the rise of online ordering that has occurred since the start of the pandemic, with consumers making more purchases for curbside pickup and in-store pickup, grocers are tasked with deploying labor for in-store picking. Effectively, there are more tasks and fewer hands.
“When you take all that into account together, it’s almost forcing retailers to expand their self-service options or get more utilization out of what they have,” Goldman said.
The Best And The Brightest
To use the labor that they do have more efficiently, many grocers are having attendants go “fishing,” which means, Goldman explained, “your self-checkout attendant, encouraging shoppers to come use the self-service and helping where necessary.”
A common mistake that Goldman said he has seen in the space is that many grocers have considered self-checkout attending to be a job that requires a lower skill level, and they have accordingly assigned lower performing associates to the job.
“What they found is that it just doesn’t work,” he said. “They need their best and brightest at the self-service lane.”
Attending the self-checkout area requires assisting multiple customers at once, keeping an eye out for items in consumers’ bags that they have not scanned (usually mistakenly, according to Goldman), and, in the case of fishing, encouraging shoppers to take advantage of the technology. These associates work with more shoppers in less time, meaning that having top performing workers on the job can make a difference for more customers.
All By Myself?
“Retailers are starting to experiment with 100 percent self-service stores,” said Goldman. “Frankly, I don’t know if 100 percent is the answer, because there are always shoppers who absolutely want to check out with an associate, and you don’t want to be in the business of turning those shoppers away.”
Still, he predicted that in years ahead, as much as 90 percent of checkout technology will be self-service-enabled, be this entirely self-checkout or hybrid self/associate checkout.
He noted that these technologies provide “both scale and scope” in terms of optimizing labor and freeing stores up to fulfill those eCommerce orders. In fact, he said he believes that this evolution toward self-checkout is not only a trend but a necessity for grocers.
“Stores have become omnichannel destinations,” he said. “The requirement is now that the store serves customers inside and outside the store… [With] all that new scope of requirement, the ability to get scale from individuals servicing the front end is a must.”