Why Cashiers Beat Self-Checkout Machines at the Grocery Store

I agree with Farhad Manjoo’s assessment in this piece for Wall Street Journal: humans are much better at checking you out at the grocery store than machines. He explains:

They [self-checkout machines] work well enough in a pinch—when you want to check out just a handful of items, when you don’t have much produce, when you aren’t loaded down with coupons. But for any standard order, they’re a big pain. Perversely, then, self-checkout machines’ shortcomings are their best feature: because they’re useless for most orders, their lines are shorter, making the machines seem faster than humans.

In most instances where I’m presented with a machine instead of a human, I rejoice. I prefer an ATM to a flesh-and-blood banker, and I find airport check-in machines more efficient than the unsmiling guy at the desk. But both these tasks—along with more routine computerized skills like robotic assembly lines—share a common feature: They’re very narrow, specific, repeatable problems, ones that require little physical labor and not much cognitive flexibility.

At my local Kroger, the few times I have tried using those self-checkout machines have been full of frustration. For instance, one time an item I scanned went through twice, and there was no easy way to select “duplicate scan” on the screen. Cycling among various on-screen buttons for fresh fruit/vegetable selection is a chore. Until a system is built which recognizes the items you’ve placed onto the scanner without human intervention comes along, cashiers will trump self-checkout computers any day. Imagine how complicated it still is if you have in-store and/or newspaper coupons, checking out via a combination credit card/cash, and so on…

On Technology Advancements in the Grocery Store

The Los Angeles Times reports how Ralphs, a grocery store chain, is using technology to speed up checkout times for customers:

Known as QueVision, the system uses hidden infrared cameras with body heat trackers to figure out how many customers are shopping at any given time. Managers use that information to redeploy workers to the cash registers when things get busy.

It’s already paying off. QueVision has trimmed the average time it takes to get to the front of the line to roughly 30 seconds from the national average of four minutes, a Ralphs spokeswoman said.

The checkout system is part of a long-overdue effort by traditional grocery chains to evolve and stay competitive through the use of technology.

I remember reading about this on Tesco’s virtual store:

In 2011, Tesco launched its futuristic Homeplus market at a Seoul subway stop. There’s no food in this virtual grocery store, only interactive walls around the station that display photos of fruit, vegetables, milk and other grocery staples. Using their smartphones, commuters can buy these products by photographing QR codes printed on the images and paying through their phones. Tesco delivers the purchases to customers’ homes the same day.

The article cites something else worth pondering: the grocery store industry is a $518 billion business in the United States.