In his Kenyon College commencement speech, David Foster Wallace said he enjoyed waiting in grocery store lines because it “gave him time to think”. But to many others, the grocery line is an arduous necessity rather than a transcendent opportunity. The grocery store checkout process has seen tangible changes throughout the last few decades to ease customer’s experience. In particular, these changes included a shift towards self-checkout services. Self-checkout kiosks sought to resolve certain consumer pain points. But did they really do so? According to recent customer feedback outlined in this article, self-checkout kiosks accounted for only a marginal improvement of CX experience. Not only do self-checkouts leave improvement opportunity on the table, but they open the door to many other new pain points. The grocery checkout process needs innovation. One of these innovations on the horizon is autonomous checkout. While self-checkouts moved the CX needle, autonomous checkouts will show marked improvement.
What is the difference between self-checkouts and autonomous checkouts?
With the whirlwind of technology innovation across all markets, it is important to define “self-checkout” versus “autonomous-checkout”. Self-checkout refers to those popular self-service express checkouts we see today. The checkout process is similar to the traditional cashier checkout process. The user scans their own items, weighs their own food, bags their own groceries, and last pays via the same self-checkout terminal.
Autonomous checkout, on the other hand, follows a different process. There are three main aspects of autonomous checkout, as stated by a 2020 Mercator Research Report.
- The tracking of items selected by the customer must require no effort or action by the customer
- A digital receipt listing items purchased is created when shopping is complete and sent to the customer’s mobile phone before the person exits the store
- The total transaction cost is paid automatically (via card on file, etc.) without any action by the customer
While self-checkout replaces a cashier with a customer interface, the autonomous checkout seeks to make the payment process entirely seamless. But how valuable is this to consumers? To assess the value in autonomous checkout and its efficacy against self-checkouts, this report measures customer need areas and assesses the pitfalls of self-checkout to reveal the opportunity autonomous can capture.
Checking out Consumer’s Grocery Needs
Grocery retail has been plodding towards innovation over the last couple decades. The introduction of self-checkout stations were a small step forward. In the late 1990s, self-checkout became popular due to some unaddressed market needs from consumers and businesses.
For the consumer, self-checkouts sought to diminish long checkout lines, reduce check out time, and to provide a sense of independence to consumers. For businesses, self-checkouts were seen as an opportunity to free up store associate time to help the store in other ways.
The trend towards speed and efficiency are omnipresent across most industries and grocery retail is no exception – but just how important are these attributes? In the 2018 North American PaymentsInsight Series survey from Mercator, 21% of shoppers noted line length and speed of checkout as the most important attribute of the grocery shopping experience. Moreover, in a separate study from Digimarc, 20% of people surveyed even said they would switch retailers for quicker lines and better checkout experiences. Length of lines and checkout experience were valued a staggering 10% more than availability of preferred brands. Customers have made it clear that when it comes to the checkout process, they want short lines and a quick check out process.
Next is the consumer’s desire to have a sense of independence. There are two aspects to this. First and most simple, consumers don’t want to interact with store employees. 76% of consumers appreciated self-checkout kiosks because they prefer not to interact with store employees while shopping. As this study was done prior to Covid-19, consumer’s apprehension toward interaction is only poised to grow in 2021.
The second aspect of the independent shopper model hypothesis is more abstract; it explores consumer psychology. Consumers are more likely to favor a shopping experience where they are “empowered” or have an “enhanced sense of control” when shopping. In a 2009 study by Christopher Andrews, PhD titled “Do-It-Yourself: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Self-Service Trend in American Business,” he explores the practicality and psychology of self-checkout shopping. In Andrews’ study, Dr. Kathleen Kirby noted that there is a positive association between “control, mastery, and self-esteem. She posed that self-checkouts can provide this experience for consumers if they use them correctly. Likewise, a separate study from the “Journal of Service Management” found that while the initial use of a self-checkout kiosk may be functional, continued use is due not to function, but instead to habit. Analyzing these studies together reveals that the allure of the self-checkout machine runs much deeper than simple efficiency. When people learn something new and moreover obtain “mastery” of it, they engage a system of positive feedback. In turn, they associate their positive emotion with grocery shopping as a whole and are thus more likely to purchase products and revisit the same store. This benefits both the consumer, and now the merchant, as they have facilitated a positive experience for the customer.
In theory, self-checkout looks like a win-win. Businesses optimize employee time, while consumers not only get quicker checkout times, but also self-satisfaction. To evaluate this in practice, it is necessary to reexamine each need area and assess whether or not self-checkout is hitting consumer expectations.
Speed At Self-checkouts
The case for self-checkouts here is slim. Shoppers should be reporting satisfaction with the speeds of their interaction. Unfortunately, they are not. While shoppers may have the intention of increasing efficiency, 76% consumers are still unsatisfied with the length of lines. In fact, 50% of customers cited long lines and slow checkouts as their single biggest grievance . Finally, 88% of people in general believed their checkout process could be even faster. Customers believe speed and efficiency are key attributes in the shopping experience. Right now, most customers are dissatisfied with their experience. Any improvements in efficiency the self-checkout kiosk introduced was underwhelming at best to consumers.
Limited Employee Interaction
The next improvement of the self-checkout kiosk was to allow shoppers to skate through the store without having to talk to any store employees. Self-checkouts under-deliver in this category, as well. It is typical for consumers to take a little while to grasp new technology. But self-checkouts are no longer new, in fact they have been in use for decades at this point, and consumers are still having technical difficulties. While consumers want a checkout process with no employee interaction, a staggering 80% of customers need store assistance when using self-checkout. Likewise, 30% of shoppers report being pulled aside by employees to check their purchases. Much like the promise of speed, self-checkouts fail to fulfill a huge aspect of what makes them attractive. Given the large demand for contactless payments in 2020 due to the pandemic, this pain point could cause even more dissatisfaction in 2021.
From a business perspective, there could be the argument that while customers still require assistance, employees are better able to cater to customers because they have more free time away from the register. However, still about 22% of consumers report that while they needed help with their check-out there was no staff available. This pain point is especially culpable because not only did 80% require additional and unwanted help, a fifth of those could not even find assistance. These compounded inefficiencies highlight the problems with self-checkouts.
The last prominent attraction of self-checkouts is the idea that they give control and mastery to the consumer. In evaluating this attribute, the draw backs of self-checkout as a whole stand out. While self-checkout was designed to eliminate interactive pain points, they actually gave way to a whole new set of pain points. Over a third of consumers that participated in Consumer Reports grocery store survey found that the self-checkout didn’t work properly, while 14% noted that the system was hard to navigate in general. Jason Turner and Andrea Szymkowiak provide insight on the implications of failed self-checkout experiences in their analysis of self-checkout experiences. When customers go into their checkout experience with the expectation and intention of independence and mastery, but instead receive employee intervention, they associate the checkout process with negative emotions, typically frustration. Instead of creating a positive feedback loop and enhancing the customer experience, self-checkouts can create a negative feedback loop and diminish the customer experience. For 20% of shoppers, this would even prompt them to take their business elsewhere (as noted above).
Assessing Need for Autonomous Checkout
The checkout experience is littered with customer pain points that self-checkout failed to deliver on – but autonomous checkout could be able to pick up the slack. In the last few years 88% of consumers voiced need for a faster checkout process. Providing customers with a checkoutless option will not only ease the problems created by self-checkouts, but will also satisfy those customers willing to engage in such a futuristic process.
Giving consumers the option of three different checkout methods will inevitably lead to faster checkout times. With autonomous checkouts, such as that used at Amazon Go stores, a large portion of consumers will be able to avoid checking out altogether. In reducing the number of customers from manual and self-service checkout and therefore relinquishing some checkout congestion, autonomous checkouts will have a significantly greater impact in eliminating long wait times. This in turn will trigger the efficiency domino effect self-checkout sought to engage. That is, less employee interaction, less cashiers, and therefore more time for store associates to be productive where they are needed.
In allowing customers to have control over their shopping experience, autonomous checkout will allow customers to personalize their checkout experience from start to finish, before they even make it to the store. The addition of the autonomous checkout will provide a third option. Within this option, users will have the ability to customize their payment method and ultimately streamline their shopping experience. This not only addresses the aspect for speed and efficiency but also optimizes the habit-reward feedback loop associated with positive shopping experiences. Consumers will first learn and utilize autonomous checkout technology. Upon first proficient use, customer grievances will be quelled upon lineless and effortless payment. In turn, their grocery experience will be seen not as tedious, but instead as a productive opportunity to exercise their new technology while also completing chores.
When problems arise via autonomous checkouts, they are less likely to be associated with the shopping experiences, but more with the app or mobile aspect of the experience. Unlike self-checkout, autonomous checkout facilitates this by dissociatingthe payment from the store. The grocery store will no longer be a place of transaction, but instead, a place of creative decision-making. Before, checkout stations created a clear distinction between the store and the outside world. Now the grocery store will act more as a large and remote extension of the kitchen.
Like any new technology, autonomous checkout is expected to run into problems as implementation and initial use cases expand across a range of demographics. But what is important to note is the traction and opportunity it currently has. Right now, 67% of consumers 67% of consumers say they are likely to use autonomous checkout if it is available. Meanwhile, only 18% of retailers are likely to provide this service. The disparity between customer needs and business initiative presents a huge opportunity for those businesses willing to venture into the autonomous space. To optimize the customer experience and ultimately stay competitive in customer retention, retailers will have to shift their focus from the trap that is self-checkout and instead focus their efforts on implementing the autonomous systems that are more likely delight customers.