Miscellaneous bits and bobs from the tech world

The age of the fast self-checkout lane is over

5/29/2022, 2:47:29 PM

I have a not-so-secret confession to make — I use the self-checkout line at grocery stores because they get me out of the store faster.

The choice used to be simple: at any given checkout queue, the queue for the self-checkout is usually non-existant, and I am adept enough at the interface so that it is not overly cumbersome to use.

My so-called "Speed Hacks"

  1. If you take care to cart your items with all of the barcodes facing upwards, then at the scanner, you can use the hand-held scanner to scan everything without having to waste time turning the product across three dimensions trying to find the barcode1. The time spent locating the barcode is spread out across my entire shopping trip, instead of at the till. If you use the "skip bagging" option, then you can even leave the items in the cart, instead of needlessly scanning/bagging/carting your items.
  2. Memorize as many produce codes as you can, so as to not spend time using their oddly-useless lexical search tool2. 4011 for bananas, and so on. (Bonus — some stores have weigh scales that print out a produce barcode for scanning, use them as well!)
  3. Use a digital tool for your shopping list. I use Google Keep on my phone. It has the list of items, along with the loyalty barcodes for specific stores, and I can use the phone itself to pay for my purchase.

The good times are over

However, everything that made self-checkout lanes superior was eroded away bit-by-bit until using them is no longer advantageous, and in some cases, inferior. As always, the blame lies with people. People are always the reason we can't have nice things.

Enforcing checkout of items one at a time

Never in my years of using the self-checkout has there been the ability to specify multiples of a single grocery item3. For the sake of example, if I wanted to buy ten jars of tomato sauce, I would have to scan all ten individually.

I believe this one's done on purpose so as to reduce the complexity of the self-checkout process.

Enforcing the use of the built-in scanner

This one's especially egregious at Costco, which only has a scanner machine that you must lift everything onto in order to scan. A hand-held scanner gun is much more maneuverable. There are supposedly staff who can help you, but...

There are not enough staff at self-checkout machines

Ideally, self-checkout should be a no-contact process. I, as a consumer, should be able to figure out the problem without staff intervention. However, in reality, combinations of shop policies (see above) and pure bad luck will invariably lead to situations where help is needed. Stores will often task only a single staff member for the entire section (6+ machines). Should one shopper need help, any other requests are queued sequentially.

Stores seem to view self-checkouts as a means to save costs, and wilfully minimize staff in self-checkouts as much as possible. Now that we're in the pandemic, that single staff member needs to a) field customer inquiries, b) deter theft, and c) sanitize machines. No wonder they're not around when you need them!

Speaking of deterring theft...

Enforcing all items to be weighed

My local store's self-checkout likely pre-weighed every single item in their grocery section. If you scan an item (a bag of oats, for example) and the system sees that an item twice its expected weight shows up in the bag, the system will throw loud alerts until the situation is resolved.

You can blame people for this one. I'm stuck making sure my items are scanned one-by-one and weighed in order to make sure I'm not trying to sneak extra stuff out of the store.

There's the option to "skip bagging" — which works well for heavier/bulky items, but again, guess what happens when you try to abuse that option? 🚨 loud alarms and a mandatory visit from the staff member. Oops!

With that last one, speed hack #1 is essentially negated entirely.

Inadequate UI responsiveness

I'll admit this one's a nitpick, but self-checkout systems seem to have slowed down immeasureably. Even simple things like seeing a number appear on screen when you press the number on the screen take 250s, which just feels slow. Toggling between screens will take half a second. All this adds up to a frustrating UI to use.

I remember the best self-checkout UI I used. It was snappy and responsive, the flow between screens was consistent and predictable, and I learned where every UI control was on the screen. At the fastest, I could enter the self-checkout, scan my item(s), scan my loyalty card, tap "credit", and pay, all in under a minute. The longest step wasn't even related to the self-checkout, it was the lag between the machine and the POS terminal, and my manual input of my PIN (did I age myself there? I haven't had to put in my PIN in so long...)

People catching on to self-checkout

At the start, lots of people steered clear of self checkout. Many still do, but a greater and greater portion of shoppers use the self-checkout when they are checking out fewer items. They're also (as a generalization) getting more adept at using the system, and thus incentivising further usage of self-checkout.

That's great! I welcome additional usage of self-checkout machines, because it means improvements are incentivised.

Unfortunately, self-checkout still suffers from the issues listed above. Combined with store policy, it led to a situation I encountered the other day where a Costco I visited had the following setup:

  • 6-8 fully staffed in-person checkouts (two per till), a single "mega-line" of shoppers, and two additional staff members whose sole job was to direct people to individual tills.
  • A 6-machine self-checkout staffed by a single staff member.

The in-person line snaked around to the back of the store and then doubled back on itself. The self-checkout line was half as long.

I joined the self-checkout line. Big mistake. The in-person line was in constant motion, and easily moved shoppers 4-5x faster than my line4.

I love self-checkouts. They're great.

They also suck a lot more than they should.


1 I want to also point out that similarly to how you will never be able to plug in a USB cable correctly on the first try, you will also never be able to find the barcode on the first turn of the product. It will invariably also end up being on a side that you swear you've already checked before.

2 Are these tomatoes listed under "hothouse" or "field", or is it just "tomato"?

3 Checking out per-unit-price produce items will trigger the system to ask for a count, but otherwise you're stuck scanning items one by one.

4 Perhaps this is less an indictment of self-checkout than praise for the tills at Costco.

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