retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Got a bunch of emails yesterday about our story regarding Big Y’s decision to eliminate all its self-checkout lanes by the end of the year.

MNB user Dick Shulman wrote:

There are two things to consider in making a decision about self-checkout.  First, a retailer’s standards for checkout speed and service  must consider several issues.  First, is the service at normal checkout lanes, e.g. how many people are in line.  The normal standard is that no less that three people should be in line, one being checked out and two waiting.  If the present queues are longer than many people will normally select the self-checkout alternative and their speed at completing checkout is irrelevant.

Second, how many customers need store service at the self checkout lanes.  If their need for assistance  reflects problems with the quality of the data file that supports checkout, e.g. there are many items that are not on that file, items with incorrect identification data (weight and size) or procedures that are mysterious to the average shopper the problems are caused by the retailer.  For example, if is produce is weighed at the front end, all your top 20 items easy to find and the others available in a logical presentation.  If you want to enter a "house customer number" to enjoy promotion discounts is that option obvious or hidden and requires store assistance. 

I will always remember the first self-checkout store I visited.  It was a test run by Publix with a client's front end system.  We were astounded at the customers who selected self checkout.  They were not young, most were senior citizens.  There checkout speed was far slower than the speed of manned lanes, but they loved the process.  Shopping was their event of the day and they were in no rush to end the experience.  They now had the ability to understood each charge as they scanned and watched the display.  In fact, there were so many seniors living around the store that they invalidated the test because the store's demographics was not typical of the chain.

MNB user Jeff Gartner wrote:

Forest Hills Foods -- our neighborhood independent food store in Grand Rapids -- has never had self-service checkout, and I cannot imagine how any customer could do it better or faster than their cashiers and baggers (who also carry it out to your car). They actually know how to converse with you too, adding two final touchpoints with each customer to reaffirm the positive customer service experience throughout the store.

The store was re-designed a few years ago to encourage their associates to converse more with the customers. And they have great food products too, and are very community oriented. Shopping takes sometimes longer than expected because you keep running into old friends also shopping there -- throughout the store you just see so many conversations going on. I've done related marketing research work on the customer experience and store design for Meijer and the old D&W group among others, and Forest Hills Foods is the best managed store and offers the best customer experience in the entire state of Michigan.

Another MNB user, an east coast retailer, wrote:

Fresh & Easy has the best self checkout system by far, as well they should given that it’s the only option available.  They also have a nice cadre of willing staff on hand ready to assist (throughout the store, not just at checkout).  Great stores and concept.  Glad they’re out west only.

Another MNB user wrote:

Normally I only use the self check out at my local grocery store when I have a handful of items.  But recently I had a good size basket and since I was a grocery cashier for many years, I figured no big deal.  I went to a lane that actually has a belt, to accommodate larger basket sizes I assume.   So I started ringing up my purchases.  The scanner was not very good, I had to swipe the item multiple times to get it to respond.  Then there was an issue with the scale and it wasn’t recognizing that I had put my items on the belt for bagging.  The store assistant had to come over at least 5 times to clear things.  What a pain!  For one or two items and getting me out the door fast, they are great.  Otherwise, I’ll be happily waiting in line for a real person.

MNB user Chris Weisert wrote:

I find it surprising that you missed the opportunity to suggest that the next version of self checkout just might be a hand held device many people already have, their smart phone.  Not sure if these companies are thinking that far ahead but putting money into a technology that may already be becoming obsolete seems silly.

Good point.

And, from another MNB user:

Hi, I’m a member of BJ’s which has self checkout. They use extra technology to measure the weight and size of packages after they’ve been scanned as the travel down the belt. The problem is if you don’t set lay/ down a tall product on the belt the same way the programmers did,  it backs up the item and you re-scan and rescan until getting customer assistance. For a heavy item, if you bounce it on the belt the weight scanner doesn’t react correctly with the same result. This poor use of technology slows the self checkout to a crawl. I continue my membership, but won’t use their self checkout.

In my commentary yesterday, I noted:

I have no reason to think that this is the case at Big Y, but supermarket chains are well known for adopting strategies and/or technologies that they think will totally change the economics of their world, only to be disappointed when things don’t change as radically as they expect. And then, they abandon these efforts. It is like institutional ADD.

Which led one MNB user to write:

Perfect description! Self check out has not been around long enough and I personally prefer to use them.  The long lines I see are at the staffed lanes. Frankly the only place I truly enjoy checking out with a live person is Trader Joe’s. Whatever they've done there works. The stockers managers and checkers at TJs are consistently pleasant informed about their products and helpful. If other chains could duplicate that maybe those of us who prefer the self check lanes would change our tune.

And MNB user Shawn Ravitz wrote:

Institutional ADD ... Could be my favorite saying of the year!  I absolutely love it and suffer from it from time to time.

MNB yesterday noted that when Target put on sale a bargain priced designer line called Missoni, it generated so much interest that Target’s website crashed just three hours after the product line was posted, and kept crashing intermittently as the day went on. It wasn’t just the website - there also were long lines at Target’s bricks-and-mortar stores, and one store in New York City - scheduled to be open temporarily for just three days to hype the Missoni collection - had to close after six hours because everything got sold out.

In my commentary, I suggested that Target had missed the lesson of Jaws - that you always have to make sure you bring a big enough boat.

But several MNB user thought that it was me that missed the boat.

One wrote:

I think Target brought a huge ocean liner, not a boat.  You missed the point of the promotion.  This was on trend, news worthy, water cooler topic, and made every news cast for free.  The only time you see Wal-mart in the news is when they miss the analyst growth projections or another class action lawsuit.  This was brilliant marketing even though they probably didn’t plan on the website crashing.  Very few would have heard of this if Target executed this flawlessly, this was planned to be news worthy.

And MNB user Brian Blank wrote:

Call me cynical, but Target doesn’t have much incentive get themselves a “bigger boat”.  They might even have incentive to drill a hole or two in their boat.  Target would not have made every newscast, every news paper, every business and computing publication simply for offering a special collection of made-for-Target Missoni apparel.  Their system crashed “from the overwhelming demand” and THAT made headlines. 

How many middle-American big-box shoppers had even heard of Missoni before this?  It’s a line found at Sak’s and Neiman-Marcus, not at Macy’s and Kohl’s.  Sure, some of us cart-pushers know fashion—whether or not we choose to actively chase after it.  But regardless of anyone’s depth of knowledge of the Missoni brand, the message was easy to infer from the new reports:  “Target has nice stuff, really cheap!”  And they were able to get that message out there without making any media buys, probably more effectively, too, being delivered as content instead of ad time/space.

KC's View: