When Self Service Doesn’t Fit the Customer Experience

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Over the weekend the Albertson’s grocery store chain announced it was ending its decade long practice of offering self checkouts at their stores. Following on, Kroger’s, another grocery chain, will determine on a store by store basis whether or not to continue to offer self-checkout.

Albertson’s said it was a decision made when they considered what they wanted the customer experience to be when you visited their stores. They wanted to give a more personal experience. And customer experience is at the top of the list when it comes to attracting and retaining customers to your business. In the case of Albertson’s and Kroger’s, they are facing heavier competition every year….from each other, other chains, and new startup stores that are beginning to appear more frequently.



The reasons given for the change are all good ones. But I can’t help thinking about my own experience, at Albertson’s in particular, that may have also brought the need for change.

Albertson’s started their self checkout when there seemed to be a trend toward offering more self service in the grocery sector. But was that what customers wanted? Or was it an attempt to shave costs from the need for fewer employees? For 4 self checkouts they could assign a single employee, a much lower staffing ratio than before.

I don’t believe customers wanted more self-service. I think customers just wanted a way to get out of the store faster when they were ready to check out. Maybe it seemed to store management that giving people the ability to DIY their groceries would answer that desire. But I remember how I felt when I saw the machines go in….like Albertson’s couldn’t be bothered to serve me anymore. I suddenly felt like an isolated outcast who didn’t deserve to have a human (who was probably more experienced at finding those darn barcodes and getting them scanned than I was) be there to help speed me on my way.

It didn’t help that the lines at the self service moved just as slowly as the ones at the human-run cash registers, maybe more so. It isn’t always easy to get your stuff to scan properly. And if you are buying produce….well, forget it, everything has to be looked up and that took longer than the cashier who had memorized the most popular codes and could quickly type them in. (They were also on hand to wipe off the scale when they were done.)

There were other problems:

  • difficulties with card payments going through
  • machines that wouldn’t accept wrinkled bills, dirty coins, or checks (more popular 10 years ago than now)
  • lack of assistance if that single employee was trying to help someone else at the time you needed him
  • bags weren’t always refilled promptly
  • the last customer could leave a soggy mess for you to clean up (or wait for that single employee to do it)


Lesson to be learned: make sure you are giving your customers what they need, not what you think they want.

With better customer data and probably some employee input, it looks like speed of exit was more desired than being able to dewrinkle the barcode on your own meat. Self service didn’t help with speed, it simply shifted the work to the customer, who was probably slower than a clerk could have been.

To better address the speed issue, many stores are using a different methodology to get their customers through the line. I call it the Fry’s method. Fry’s Electronics looks at herding customers a bit differently. Rather than customers choosing a line to stand in, everyone stands in one line. And as a cashier becomes free, the next customer is ushered to that cashier.

No more getting in a line that stalls because the customer up ahead has multiple coupons, his credit card is melting, or there is a dispute about price. No waiting for the people ahead of you with 200 items on board to get through so you can get your just over the “fewer-than” limit stuff checked out. I have been to Fry’s and this works well. Most of the downside has to do with the extended areas of impulse items that have sprung up along the waiting area. Candy, soda-pop, batteries, and bobbleheads anyone?

Self service can be great when used appropriately. It’s a terrific way to let customers update their own passwords, look up answers to questions, get documentation, and manage downloads. It’s good for making notifications to everyone at once or just select customers. It gives customers the option of not hanging on hold just to get a simple request handled.



Just be sure that self service is appropriate for your business so your customer experience won’t suffer.

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