Image: Self-checkout
John Brecher
Anne Hidaka looks for help from a cashier while attempting to scan her potted palm plant in the automated self-checkout lane at a Home Depot in Seattle. The bar code placement on tall pots can be difficult to scan, causing people to tip the plants and spill soil.
The sun sets amid thunderstorms outside Newark, N.J.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/22/2011 7:40:02 AM ET 2011-07-22T11:40:02

When you walk into an Albertson’s supermarket, you can find pretty much anything you want, from soup to nuts. But one thing you won’t be able to find in many of the chain’s stores soon is a self-checkout lane.

Albertson’s LLC, which operates 217 stores in Florida, Texas and five other states, said this month it would eliminate self-checkouts from all its locations to promote more customer interaction. The decision generated enormous reaction among msnbc.com readers, who expressed strong opinions about the merits of the technology.

But love it or hate it, the self-checkout phenomenon is not disappearing from the retail scene anytime soon.

Self-checkout suppliers raked in $524.1 million worldwide in 2010, a 46 percent increase from 2007, according to technology research firm VDC Research Group, which projects growth of 84 percent over the next five years. As technology improves, self-checkout likely will migrate into store aisles as customers armed with smart phones use new apps to scan and pay for items on the spot.

While Albertsons and many shoppers may find self-checkout technology dehumanizing, it can reduce wait times, save on labor costs and make maximum use of limited retail floor space, said analyst Richa Gupta of technology research firm VDC Research Group.

For Home Depot, an early adopter that introduced self-checkout lanes a decade ago, the move initially was about labor savings, said Mike Guhl, vice president of store and credit systems. But contrary to what many believe, he said the systems have not resulted in any lost jobs. Instead allowing one cashier to monitor four self-checkout stations has freed other employees to work elsewhere in the store.

Now that Home Depot stores have used the systems for so long, having them is more about maintaining customer expectations, Guhl said.

“When you speak with retailers, even now in this economy, they're having trouble staffing their stores," said Lee Holman, lead retail analyst with technology advisory firm IHL, who has studied self-checkouts for 10 years. "It's real tough to claim that they are installing self-checkouts because they're looking to get rid of jobs."

Self-checkout systems are also widely used by other big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and CVS Pharmacy.

(They are also used at stores operated by grocery giant Supervalu, which runs 450 Albertsons outlets in 16 states including Nevada, southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Unlike the other Albertsons operator, Supervalu has no plans to discontinue the use of self-checkouts.)

Story: Major grocer getting rid of self-checkout lanes

NCR, a leading self-checkout system supplier, had more than 83,000 self-checkout units deployed at more than 150 retailers around the world as of the end of 2010, according to Retail Banking Research data. The units cost about $17,000 to $20,000, compared with $2,500 to $3,000 for a regular cash register, Gupta said.

The technology has come a long way since NCR installed its first self-checkout at Ball's Food Stores in Kansas City in 1998, said NCR product marketing specialist Carrie Smola.

With the company's latest model, shoppers can scan their store's loyalty card or provide other identification and the computer will remember whether the shopper is left-handed, their preferred language and a "pick list" of that shopper's favorite items, including those without barcodes like grapes and oranges, Smola said.

"It's simply about innovation and being a 21st century retailer," said Brendan Wonnacott, spokesman for Tesco-owned Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market.

Fresh & Easy has been using a system called "assisted checkout" since opening in 2007 and uses the units in all its 176 locations in California, Nevada and Arizona. Each store has eight self-checkout lanes, although customers always have the option of asking a nearby employee to help. Instead of being stuck at a register, employees are able to float around the store and help customers, Wonnacott said.

Holman, the analyst, said mobile self-checkout will have a huge impact on the future of retail. Even now an app called AisleBuyer allows shoppers to purchase items by scanning the barcode and paying through a smartphone. So far AisleBuyer has signed up one retailer, baby gear and toy store chain Magic Beans, and is working to add more partners, said the company's marketing coordinator Katie Despres.

Holman said mobile phones are the future of the checkout aisle.

"I remember a time when you could not buy a hamburger at McDonald's with a credit card," Holman said. "In this day and age, everybody is swiping cards. Other countries are paying with mobile phones more than we are. This is a trend that is building, it’s coming."

Not everyone loves the trend, of course. Of more than 160,000 who voted on an msnbc.com survey, about 35 percent said they loved self-checkout lanes while 37 percent said they hated them. About 28 percent said they used them when they had to.

Reader Carolyn G. wrote: "I love it when the scanners accuses me of shoplifting 'please remove item from the carousel and scan.' When I have to call an attendant over to override the computer, any time initially saved is already lost."

Reader Angel.101 sees it differently. "I don't want more human interaction. I want to get the one or two groceries I came for and leave. I don't want to be forced to wait in a long line behind other customers with full baskets, or who need price checks or want to haggle over their coupons. Those self-checkout areas are great. More stores should have them as an option."

The results of the msnbc.com poll reflect Guhl's own experience with Home Depot customers.

"There's probably one-third who love self-checkout and want to use it all the time. They don't want to interact with people, they just want to get in and out," he said. "Then one-third hate it and won't use it ever. Then another third will go wherever the line is shorter."

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