The Self Checkout Comes of Age

25 Years In, These Scanners are Here to Stay (and Do So Much More Than They Even Do Today)

A woman grabs a smartphone from the Personal Shopping Solution display in a retail store.
by Peter Ward
September 18, 2019

Cast your mind back to 1995. It was a seminal year from a tech viewpoint for many reasons. It was the first year that mobile phones didn’t resemble bricks. You may have been among the first people to buy a book from Amazon or to put in a bid on eBay. You may have watched Toy Story, the first movie to use computer-generated imagery (CGI). And, if you visited Safeway in the UK, you may have been one of the first shoppers to use Shop ‘n’ Go.

That year, Safeway became ‘the first UK supermarket chain to experiment with self-scanning’ and, due to the overwhelming response from its customers, ultimately deployed Personal Shopping Solutions (PSS) on a mass scale. Although other grocers around the world were testing the waters with self-checkout at the time, many consider Safeway to be the PSS pioneer.

PSS: Risky or Smart?

At the time, I worked for Symbol, the mobile data capture specialist that’s now a part of Zebra, and was responsible for the Safeway PSS rollout. (They were using our devices.)

When people learn of my role, they often ask: why did Safeway do it? Mobile phones were a luxury for most, and mobile shopping didn’t exist yet. There was no consumer expectation around convenience, at least not at the level that exists in today’s ‘now economy.’ Plus, 25 years ago, many deemed it risky to let a customer leave the store without an employee personally scanning and bagging each item. Store surveillance and theft prevention measures weren’t as sophisticated in supermarkets back then as they are today. Trusting that customers would pay for everything they put into their carts was risky, and it certainly put the honour system to the test.

However, Safeway was one of the many grocers that found it riskier to continue with business as usual.

The number one gripe I heard across the retail industry at the time was about peak time checkout queues. Supermarket customers found long checkout lines especially frustrating. So much so that many shoppers did what we still do today: abandon their carts and go elsewhere for what they need.

Some grocers tried to speed up checkout for customers by segmenting customers by the size of their carts. However, Safeway believed that it was odd to give people with 10 items or fewer a dedicated or express lane. That still left people with larger carts – who were spending more money – in longer queues in their (now fewer) ‘dedicated’ checkout lanes.

So, Safeway asked us to help solve this dilemma and to find new ways to improve the checkout experience for people spending more. Of course, they wanted to enhance the customer experience for all shoppers in the process. The resulting Shop ‘n’ Go solution was big news. We had the BBC, national press and global TV crews descending on the first Safeway store in Reigate in the UK to witness the ‘go live’, with many predicting that this was the beginning of the end of the personal, associate-based shopping experience. People were sure to be replaced by automation, they reported, leaving many workers to be wary of technology.

But workers had nothing to fear. The need for associates hasn’t decreased over the last 25 years, even as PSS and self-checkout (SCO) technology use has increased. And these scan-and-shop solutions sure have become popular.

SCOping the Future

As we look forward, it seems certain that PSS and SCOs will become more common in stores.

Technavio predicts that 468,000 terminals will be in place globally by 2021. This growth makes sense. PSS and SCO technologies deliver a frictionless shopping experience, which was desired back then but demanded today.

The technology also frees associates to focus more time on customers, and the investment-versus-return equation is increasingly favourable. What’s more, the user experience is improving too. Newer PSS devices such as our PS20 have voice assistants so customers can ask for help (like hey Siri or hey Alexa) to find items or get information, with the answers displayed on the device. And with locationing technology becoming more accurate and cost-efficient, retailers will be able to send relevant offers to the PSS device based on a shopper’s location. If retailers also use an app – and the customer has ticked the appropriate permissions – personalised incentives can be sent to shoppers too.

Indeed, 25 years after it first came to market (and the supermarket), PSS technology has come of age.

Or has it?

A Curious Relationship

I was attending a trade event in London earlier this year and sat with a number of large retailers, most of whom are Zebra customers. All of them were saying that they plan to roll out more PSS and SCO units in their stores. In some ways this isn’t surprising. The brands I work with report that, from a cost / return on investment (ROI) perspective, the technology is proven. Retailers who have implemented the solution say that PSS helps to increase sales between 7-15 percent, according to a VDC Research report. In the UK, some retailers tell us that they see up to 20 percent of revenue go through PSS systems – with even more benefits gained in terms of improved customer service and enhanced staff productivity.  Plus, repeat visits, loyalty and satisfaction levels tend to increase when people use mobile and fixed SCOs.

This said, there is a ‘but’ here. And it’s this: some retailers still say that they worry about increased shrinkage associated with deploying PSS. So much so that they do not fully trust the technology and cannot see how it will work for them in their stores. This, too, is not surprising.

Research reports often point to an increase in shrinkage through theft when self-service systems are in situ. And social media is not averse to suggesting how to cheat systems. So, as we look forward, do we continue to see the expansion of PSS and SCOs as double-edged swords? I think not. From what I’ve seen over the last 25 years, there are ways to maximise the positives and minimise shrinkage.

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Editor’s Note: Tune in next week for tips on how to prevent shrinkage and get the most from your PSS and SCO investments.

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Peter Ward
Peter Ward has dedicated over 20 years to helping retailers overcome their business challenges through technology.








































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