Self Checkout Doesn't Have To Be Horrible

Many retail stores now have self-checkout stations. A store employee oversees a cluster of four stations where customers can scan the barcodes of their items and pay. The appeal to the store is clear: less labor is required to operate the store. It should be better for the customer too, they shouldn't have to wait in line as long. Great idea, but the execution has been terrible, and self checkout is generally a horrible experience.

First of all, self-checkout treats me like I'm an idiot. I'm greeted with a "Press here to begin" button on the screen. I know the barcode reader is on all the time, why turn it off until I press a button on the screen? So I press the button, and scan my first item. The kiosk refuses to scan anything else until I have placed the item in the bagging area, and it has confirmed the weight in the bagging area has increased by what it thinks the scanned item weighs. I'm not sure what bad thing they are trying to prevent from happening, but it drives me crazy. If you have a cart full of items and have to move a bag that's already full, some control-freak computer programmer decided that I should have to wait for the attendant to let me continue. The attendant is usually not paying attention, or is helping another customer, so I stand and wait. Finally they come and do a careful investigation of my issue, ensuring that I am not shoplifting and have scanned all the items that are in my bags. Ha! What really happens is the attendant just pushes their magic button and I can finally continue scanning. A complete waste of both my time and their time.

When I'm finished with the scanning and bagging dance I'm ready to pay and leave. I often get asked about my loyalty club number, or frequent shopper number, or whatever they have branded their enhanced consumer tracking function. I hate those things, so I always skip them. Finally I'm presented with a bewildering array of options for how to pay. I search the screen looking for the one to pay with my debit card. I finally find it and am directed to complete my transaction on the credit card terminal. I insert my card into the chip reader, and it takes 15 seconds for it to decide to ask me to enter my PIN. I do so, wait 10 more seconds for it to say the transaction has been approved, immediately followed by a repeating, annoying buzz reminding me to remove my card. I put my card back in my pocket and wait another 8 seconds for my receipt to print. Finally I'm free from self-checkout hell.

Self checkout is supposed to be more convenient and more efficient, but it rarely is. If the regular lines are not super long, I almost always would prefer to wait for a person than endure the horrible self checkout experience. In many cases it's faster to go through the line staffed by people than the line staffed by the machines. The worker at the traditional checkout line can scan items as fast as they can move them across the barcode reader. Their throughput is many times faster than anyone can do in a self checkout line.

Today I went to the Walmart Neighborhood Market near our house to pick up some snacks for a trip. I don't usually go to this store, and since nobody was at any of the self checkout stations, and the attendant looked unusually attentive, I decided to give it a go. It was fantastic. When I looked at the screen it told me to scan my first item. I was holding a pack of skittles in my left hand and a package of beef jerky in my right. I scanned the skittles and immediately scanned the beef jerky. No complaining about the baggage area. I put the snacks down and pulled out my credit card and inserted into the chip reader. Before I could look over at the touch screen I heard an almost pleasant ding (it wasn't as nice as the ding from my iPhone, but it was pretty nice) and I was done. I stared in disbelief as my receipt immediately printed.

It was hands down the best self checkout experience I've ever had. I don't know if Walmart has rolled this out to all of their stores, but everybody who designs or implements self service point of sale systems should go buy some snacks at their Walmart Neighborhood Market and then make their system work exactly the same way.