Self-service checkouts fall from favor

Joe Napsha
| Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

When Tommie Gaver buys groceries at Shop 'n Save, she invariably heads for the self-service checkout lane, regardless of how many items she is buying.

"It's fast. I use it on bigger orders. I hate to stand in a long checkout line," said Gaver, who shops at the store on Route 66 in Greensburg.

Gaver is bucking a trend when it comes to shoppers who select self-service checkout lanes, which often results in bagging their own groceries.

Despite an almost universal dislike for standing in long or slow checkout lines, an overwhelming majority of shoppers opt for cashier-assisted lanes instead of self-service, according to the 2011 "Food Retailing Industry Speaks" report published this autumn by the Food Marketing Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.

Self-service checkouts — introduced nationwide about a decade ago — have fallen in popularity. About 16 percent of supermarket customers used the self-service lanes in 2010, down from almost 20 percent in 2006, according to the report.

And almost 85 percent of customers choose a cashier to ring up their purchases when at least one self-service lane is available, the survey found. That includes the 20 percent of customers who picked an express lane with a cashier that limits the number of items to be purchased.

Perhaps as a result, some supermarket chains such as Albertsons of Boise and Big Y Foods Inc., with 61 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, are removing self-service checkouts.

Big Y said it determined that self-service lanes do not save customers time and usually take them longer to check out than customers in cashier-assisted lanes.

"Self-checkout lines get clogged as the customers needed to wait for store staff to assist with problems with bar codes, coupons, payment problems and other issues that invariably arise with many transactions," Big Y said in a statement.

Offering customers a self-service option is an example of what supermarkets like to do: "Give their customers a lot of choice," said John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Because of that philosophy, few supermarket chains have removed them, Stanton said. "There's no referendum on whether self-service checkout works or not."

Stores that remove self-service checkouts are creating more opportunities for customers to interact with the staff, thus increasing customer service, he noted.

That's what Shop 'n Save owner Jeff Sorbara did when self-service checkouts were not included at the Cranberry supermarket his family opened in April.

"We've not had any customer demand it," Sorbara said, referring to the self-service checkouts.

Even so, his family's Shop 'n Save chain has installed self-service checks at their other markets in South Fayette, Wilkins, Bethel Park, Heidelberg and Kennedy.

At Giant Eagle, the region's largest supermarket chain with 228 stores, "usage of self-service checkouts has remained popular," spokesman Dan Donovan.

The majority of Giant Eagle's supermarkets offer the self-service checkouts, which were introduced in February 2001 in 14 stores, he said.

"We continually monitor the preferences of our customers and adjust the number of self-checkout lanes in both existing and new stores based on these customer preferences," Donovan said.

Demographics is a factor in who uses the self-service checkouts. Typically, younger customers are more comfortable with the technology, Stanton said.

That's the case with Ashley O'Bradovich, 20, of Hempfield, who says she usually heads for the self-service lanes.

"It's a lot easier that way," said O'Bradovich, who is unfazed by operating the touch screen at the checkout.

Ray Charley, owner of two Shop 'n Save supermarkets in Greensburg, agrees with analysts who say customers who use self-service typically have small orders, a half-dozen items or less.

Using self-service for small orders is a lot more convenient than waiting in a long line, said Jay Barber of Bridgeville, at the Shop 'n Save supermarket in South Fayette.

"Retailers often use self-checkout as a way to adjust to the highs and lows in customer traffic throughout the day," the Food Marketing Institute's report found.

The report stated that having one employee monitor four to six self-service checkout lanes can result in a significant savings on labor costs.

Charley said he has not found that to be the case.

Sometimes, two or three cashiers are needed to help with the self-service lanes, Sorbara said.

At the Shop 'n Save in South Fayette, cashier Kathleen Gasper said she often assists customers who have problems with checking out produce or figuring out the computerized checkout system.

"When you see a customer struggle, it ends up becoming a problem," Sorbara said.

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