It’s time for retailers to put the ‘serve’ back into self-serve


Love them or leave them, self-serve checkouts are now part and parcel of the grocery shopping experience. Many in the industry view these kiosks as quick and convenient, but personally, I’m not so sure.  Have you seen the conveyor belt self-checkouts that Coles has been rolling out over the last few years? Basically, it’s like a typical staffed checkout but without an actual Coles team member serving you. This means customers are required to put their items on the conveyor belt, we

weigh them, bag them, and pay. Unlike other self-serve checkouts, these could suit those doing their big weekly shop.

While some shoppers love packing their groceries exactly how they like, Coles faced backlash from others, who claimed that the new checkouts forced them to do the job of a team member. 

I chatted about this with The General Store team recently and the feedback was mixed. We all agreed, however, that the new conveyor belt checkouts give customers the option to take their time, unlike the typical kiosks, which are for those with fewer items. It turns out, many of us had experienced the pressure and anxiety of packing our groceries fast enough at Aldi, while fellow shoppers impatiently queued up behind us, throwing us dirty looks and examining our Special Buys haul. 

I have to admit, I’m not a fan of these conveyor belt checkouts. But given trials began way back in 2015 at two Melbourne stores before now landing in my local suburban Coles supermarket, I imagine the continued adoption over time must be yielding positive results. Whilst I’m a fan of test, trial and advancement through learning, it’s hard to believe these checkouts are still rolling out broadly after seven years, given how far retail has advanced in that time. 

It could be argued that these checkouts place a greater burden on the customer without fully using the available technology and services to optimise the experience. 

In fact, I’d say that self-serve checkouts in general in Australia could be doing much more to put the customer first. In trials we’ve seen from convenience stores and supermarkets, the customer is required to scan barcodes throughout or at the end of their shop, using their own devices, time, and energy. 

It’s an even worse experience for people with disabilities. Those with visual impairments have trouble navigating touchscreens, wheelchair users can’t reach or see screens and those with trouble hearing may not be able to easily find a supermarket worker if they need help. Of course, you could argue that these shoppers could simply line up at checkouts served by supermarket teams, but why should they suffer from mediocre retail experiences?

I wonder, whilst the customer is technically skipping a queue, are we doing enough to put the customer first in self-serve experiences? And beyond that, are we optimising the experience to drive better business performance for the retailer?

‘Magical’ self-serve experiences exist

If you want to see what a customer-first self-serve experience looks like, go overseas. We’re seeing more and more advanced examples of optimised or removed checkouts, whether it’s Amazon Go’s Just Walk Out stores or Alibaba’s unstaffed stores in China. Tech start-ups like Caper are doing wonderful things with AI-driven trolleys and counters. At supermarkets that use Caper tech, like US giant Kroger, customers can skip the line by simply paying right at their trolley – without even scanning individual barcodes. These battery-operated smart trolleys instantly recognise items that the customer places inside them. Pretty clever.

Beyond convenience, there’s immeasurable value in the data and insights derived from this kind of tech and how it influences the performance of these environments. An Amazon Go store or Caper trolley provides ridiculous levels of rich data across countless business metric aspects of the shopper journey and their touch points – all of which are then primed for material and ongoing optimisation. 

Based on these detailed analytics, Amazon and Caper can understand which parts of the store work harder for product interaction and consideration, any areas of weak conversion, customer types, relationships between basket volumes and time in store, and plenty more. These insights go well beyond current tracking and measurement technologies deployed in most retail environments.

When I visited New York recently, I shopped at an Amazon Go store using Just Walk Out tech and it was magical. I scanned my credit card when I first entered the shop, picked up the items I wanted, then walked out. Easy. 

I also visited the American Express Store at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which uses the same tech. Again, it was outrageously convenient. Consider walking into a store at half-time to grab a drink with 20,000 other thirsty fans. Now imagine buying your drink (and perhaps grabbing your favourite player’s jersey) and not waiting a single minute in line to pay for them.

There are already a lot of ultra-convenient checkouts that put customers front-and-centre of the experience. We’ve already seen some glimpses of it on our shores – international giants Uniqlo and Decathlon have brought their (seemingly) simple RFID tech into their local stores to limit the amount of scanning required by shoppers. It’s a sign of bigger and better things to come here in Australia, we hope.

This story first appeared in the January 2023 issue of Inside FMCG Magazine.


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