A self-checkout lane at a major grocery chain store.
If you've shopped at a supermarket the last few years, you've probably come across the self-checkout lanes. You know, the ones where you're expected to do all the work yourself -- scanning, keying in codes, and usually bagging -- without getting paid or receiving a discount on your grocery items.
These self-checkout lanes generally work well and efficiently if the customer has six items or fewer. But more than that -- such as a full cart -- and they become a customer service nightmare for many people I've seen (including myself).
Supermarkets operate on pretty thin margins, so replacing a human checkout clerk with a machine may seem, on its face, a wiser move. The machine doesn't need breaks, it doesn't call out sick and it doesn't ask for benefits.
But here's the problem: Customers are sloooooooooooow at using these machines. A customer may use these machines once a month or so. They're not "pros", like the human clerks. The lines back up. And if you encounter a problem (and you usually do), you have to wait for a human with a key or a code to spot you and render assistance.
Show me a supermarket that leans heavily on using these machines, and I'll show you some very long lines and frustrated, desperate customers who can wait as long in the line as they spend in the aisles shopping.
I'll also show you a customer who thinks twice about going to that supermarket for a small or medium-sized grocery run. And chooses a smaller outlet with speedy human clerks.
[To be fair, some chains now have this electronic system where you're given a handheld scanner and you're expected to scan each item as you put it in the cart while you shop. At checkout, your items are automatically tallied and all you have to do is bag. I've tried this a couple times and it's actually a pretty good experience.]
A quick search on the topic of self-checkout lanes turned up this CBS News story from last year, which noted that the self-checkout machine experience was on the wane.
Technology is often a wondrous thing when applied thoughtfully in business operations. Some of the best retailers -- I'm thinking Apple -- have revolutionized the store clerk/point-of-sale experience. But they haven't replaced humans with the tech. In fact, you go into an Apple Store and you're almost outnumbered by their staff in many instances. And most carry souped-up iPod Touches to check you out where you stand.
Big supermarket chains are going for the high-tech, low touch with these self-checkout lanes in many instances. But is there a high-tech, high-touch better way?
Update: Interesting piece by FastCompany about how Home Depot is tweaking the customer checkout experience.