I was on my way into Marks and Spencers foodcourt today when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of self-service checkouts. I know these checkouts are not uncommon in the US but I’d never seen them anywhere in this country until now. For the uninformed, self-service checkouts allow customers at shops and supermarkets to check out their own goods and pack them into bags themselves. Security is ensured both by placing the bag racks on a balance that cross-checks the weight of the goods in them with those that youv’e scanned, and by the presence of a highly suspicious supervisor.

Theoretically, self-service checkouts are a good solution for the shop and the customer because they drastically reduce labour costs and decrease checkout time. I put the latter part of the equation to the test today.

The self-service checkouts are about a metre and a half long and consist of a LCD touchscreen, a barcode detector and a bag rack (among other things). When you stand in front of the checkout, you can either start passing your items through immediately or press ‘Start’ on the touchscreen, which I did and launched the machine into an excessively polite and cheerful introduction into how to use the checkout. It really is as simple as you’d imagine – you scan your items and put them into the bags. As you scan items, their information and cost appear on the screen. I did have a problem in one item not appearing when I scanned it but that may have been due to it being in the wrong orientation.

When you’ve finished, you press a button on the screen and choose a payment option – credit or debit cards, or cash. Cash can be inserted into the machine, and credit cards can be swiped. There’s a signature panel on the side of the machine which you have to use in the latter case, and at the end you get a receipt printed. Throughout all of this, the instructions continue via videos and audio.

The entire process took rather longer than it would’ve if I went to a normal ‘assisted checkout’ due to the novelty of the experience but I imagine I could cut the time down quite a bit on a second visit. I doubt that I could ever be faster than an experienced checkout person but I could give a good shot at beating many of the slower ones I’ve encountered. The argument could be made that this means self-service checkouts would in fact not save the majority of people’s time, but that’s neglecting the fact that you could fit more self-service checkouts in the same space as normal ones, thus reducing queue length.

I doubt that shops or supermarkets will ever eliminate normal ‘assisted’ checkouts simply because there are some people who will not be able to use (or intensely dislike using) self-service checkouts. This suits me fine – the slow folks can go with the normal checkouts, and the quicker, more froody people can go with the self-service ones. This will save a lot of time, I expect. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before they have to replace the whole lot with RFID scanner gateways.

4 Replies to “Self-Service”

  1. The Tesco near my flat has had them for the last six months now. When they arrived they were completely empty – most people were scared of them, so it was fun to use them. Much quicker than using a normal queue. Kids seem to love them – turns grocery shopping into a game for them.

  2. Most people are still scared of the M&S self service ones – go in any lunch time and there are big queues for the ‘normal’ tills, and no queue at all at self service.
    Although I did manage to crash one today 😦

  3. Yeah, they’ve been there at least a few months now. Half the time they’re broken; the rest they’re shouting “PLEASE INSERT CASH OR CREDIT CARD”, beeping inanely, or complaining about the wrong code for the baked goods with no barcode. Needs More Work.

  4. Any thoughts on how they work? We tried it out at the weekend and kept getting “invalid item in the bagging area” and “please return item to bagging area”. I’d have said it was rfid tags, except it happened with a single cabbage as well. Unless it was my rfid chip in my id card interfering?

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