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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Don’t Unplug That Self-Checker!

What’s this? Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions have announced they are removing self-checkouts from most of their Southern California stores as of this month. Oh, no! I’ve come to love those do-it-yourself scanners, even if businesses seem to be falling out of love with them. Looking back, it’s easier to see ominous signs for self-serve registers. Some chains, such as Costco, abandoned them while a few others, such as Trader Joe’s, never adopted them. What’s more, they just didn’t come to dominate the checkout experience over the years as you might have expected. I always kept the faith that technology would win out eventually. But now, this Albertsons decision is the biggest setback yet. Admit it: There’s a dark cloud over the future of self-serve checkouts. I was skeptical years ago when my local Home Depot installed a self-checkout aisle. I only tried it because a clerk beckoned me. “C’mon,” he said. “I’ll help you. It’s easy.” Indeed, it was. I recall feeling a moment of wonder because the do-it-yourself scanner was smooth and accurate and I could pause to make sure a particular item rang up at the right price. I was in control and I didn’t have to chat with a checker about the weather or the Lakers. A quick convert was I. So why, why, why are the three stores taking away most of the self-service lanes in our area? A spokesman for the three grocers, which have the same owner, was quoted as saying the reason was to “provide attention” to customers, and the renewed emphasis on attention “includes a friendly checker to serve them.” Provide attention? That means we’ve got to return to the slow lanes where every single conversation with every single “friendly checker” apparently is required to begin like this: “Hello, how’re you?” “I’m fine. How’re you?” And I’ll bet you know – you just know – that if you ever were to buy some, ahem, personal item, the “friendly checker” would delight in inspecting it before scanning it. This is the “provided attention” we want? To me, this impulse to provide attention just doesn’t ring true. More attention equals more employees, after all, and you’d think stores would be eager to embrace the labor savings implied by self-service checkouts, especially in this era of sharply rising minimum wages. So what gives? I did a bit of research and came across something I didn’t know: shoplifting increases dramatically with self-service checkouts. USA Today reported that shrinkage, as retailers call it, is up to five times higher with self-service registers. The New York Times and Forbes reported on a study that said theft from self-checkouts equals 4 percent of the value of goods that should have been scanned. Since groceries have a reported profit margin of 1 to 2 percent, a loss of 4 percent would be devastating to the business and would more than offset any labor savings. I have no idea if the Albertsons stores experienced 4 percent shrinkage, but that magnitude of a loss for some retailers goes a long way toward explaining why self-service has been so slow to take off. No wonder some chains are unplugging the machinery. This appears to be one area where technology is losing. But wait. I hope retailers don’t give up just yet. In this age of technology, isn’t there some device that would correct the shoplifting problem? Maybe scanners in the grocery cart that detect everything in or near it? Or maybe scanners at the exits that set off an alarm when it senses something that hadn’t been scanned at the register? Or maybe retailers simply need to assign attentive clerks to monitor the self-checkout lanes. One study said shoplifting declines sharply when the lanes are actively patrolled by a checker. This may be one area where technology just needs a little human help to be successful. Put another way, maybe it is not the customers but the self-checkout lanes that need the provided attention. Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@sfvbj.com.

Charles Crumpley
Charles Crumpley
Charles Crumpley has been the editor and publisher of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal since March 2016. In June 2021, it was named the best business journal of its size in the country – the fourth time in the last 5 years it won that honor. Crumpley was named best columnist – also for the fourth time in the last 5 years. He serves on two business-supporting boards and has won awards for his civic involvement. Crumpley, a former newspaper reporter, won several national awards and fellowships for his work, and he was a Fulbright scholar to Japan.
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