KANSAS CITY, Kan. — After operating self-checkout lanes for a decade, Balls Food Stores here has found that the unstaffed lanes still require careful management and customer support to be successfully deployed.
“Implementing a strong support process is key,” said Barb Ramsour, director of information systems for the chain, which runs 12 Hen House Markets and 17 Price Chopper stores in and around the Kansas City metropolitan area, including parts of Missouri and Kansas.
Ramsour shared her experiences with self-checkout in a recent SN-hosted webinar, “How Self-Service Is Transforming Retail,” sponsored by NCR. Other participants were Greg Buzek, president of IHL Consulting Group, Franklin, Tenn., and John Saccomanno, director of food, drug and petroleum industry marketing, NCR, Dayton, Ohio.
Balls Food Stores has implemented NCR's Fastlane self-checkout lanes in nine of its stores, including both banners, typically operating four self-checkouts per store, said Ramsour. Between 9% and 18% of sales in those stores are processed by the self-checkout terminals. Most orders going through self-checkouts are smaller, she said. “We typically don't see a lot of big basket orders go through self-checkout.”
As an example of the kind of oversight needed to ensure the smooth functioning of self-checkouts, Ramsour mentioned an instance where an ice cream vendor reduced the contents of a container by 8 ounces without changing the UPC number. Since self-checkout technology compares the UPC of an item with its weight to ensure that the correct item has been scanned, there was now a mismatch for this ice cream container.
“Once we realized this and explained it to our customers, we adjusted the weight tolerance in the software and the ice cream rang through fine,” she said. “But this shows you've got to have a good flow of communication between operations, technology and pricing staff and customers so simple issues are resolved in an expedient manner.”
In managing self-checkouts, Balls uses a “queue management policy,” such that if lines at a cashier lane forms, shoppers are directed to the self-checkout if appropriate, said Ramsour. In addition, “we attempt to use self-checkout as relief before opening another manned lane.”
Some shoppers are eager to use self-checkout, while others are reluctant. At Balls, the latter customers “are approached by an experienced self-checkout team leader,” Ramsour said. “This attendant has got to be a salesperson, making sure that customers are aware of self-checkout, encouraging them to use it and ensuring a positive experience.”
Self-checkout attendants, who oversee the four self-checkout lanes, also play a teaching role, “helping customers become self-sufficient and correcting behavior that might be deterrents,” such as a woman putting her purse on the scale, she said.
Customers well-trained in using self-checkout technology are more apt to use it and have a positive experience. “They love it when they don't have to wait for an attendant,” said Ramsour. “It makes a world of difference.”
The No. 1 problem that consumers have with self-checkout is the need for employee intervention, said IHL Consulting's Buzek, who suggested using signs guiding shoppers with age-restricted items, for example, to cashier lanes.
Attendants also serve as “security enforcers” who keep an eye on “bagging issues or potential walk-aways,” added Ramsour, though she said Balls has not had many security issues with self-checkout over the 10 years it has been available.
Self-checkout stores have not reduced their labor pool, but have redeployed cashiers to other areas, resulting in better customer service, she said.