Why self-checkout lanes don't work

Self-checkout at a Los Angeles-area grocery store.

Ten years ago, grocery stores rolled out the ultimate self-service experiment: self-checkout lanes. It let shoppers get in and out of stores without interacting with a single costly employee. It was supposed to be the pinnacle of modern efficiency and convenience. Fast forward to today and many of these chains are ripping out their self-checkout lanes in response to a backlash of customer outrage. What happened?

We're happy enough to pump our own gas or huddle around a salad bar, but something about self-checkout went horribly wrong. Every step of the process was anxiety-producing, from fumbling with the scanner to squinting our way through complicated instructions, all as the line of strangers behind us grew increasingly restless. Coupons were hard to use; our mistakes were broadcast by a series of aggressive beeps, and the specter of "accidental theft" overshadowed the entire experience.

Self-service can work beautifully, but it must be designed in a way that actually improves the service experience.

Consider airline check-in kiosks. The most demanding fliers actually prefer to check themselves in and choose their own seats on intuitive touch screens rather than deal with an airline employee, however cheerful, first thing in the morning.

When you shift work from employees to customers, it's important to simplify the job design.

Let's revisit the grocery store. What would successful self-service look like? Some stores are experimenting with a model that gives shoppers a scanner as soon as they walk into the store, allowing us to scan and bag items as we go and keep a running tally of what we're spending. For customers on a budget, this is an excellent reason to serve ourselves.

I'm much more optimistic about this self-service experiment. In fact, I think we're seeing a glimpse of retail's future here, where customers play roles that employees once did because customers want to do those jobs, not because it's cheaper to offload work to them.

And that is the essence of great self-service.

About the author

Frances Frei is a Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School. She is the co-author of “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.”

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