Sainsbury's self-checkouts fail on so many level

Not so long ago, having had a pretty good day at work, we managed to leave the office at a reasonable hour. We popped down to Sainsbury’s to quickly pick up food for a few days. Before we knew it, our shopping trolley was full! When it came to pay, the very few cashiers were busy.

A smiley young staff waved us over to the self-checkouts. Hesitating, we pointed at our full trolly, but she laughed and said “I’ll be there to help!” Sure you will…

It was an experience, to say the least. We were held hostage by the constantly unhappy self-checkout, which seemed to be randomly shouting Tourette-style, “Unexpected item in bagging area!”, “Please remove item!” and so on, so forth. By the third time we had to wait for a staff member to come and authorise a bag of lettuce, I begged her to PLEASE stay until we were done. (Please, mummy, don’t go!) My patience was wearing thin and Andrew was making barely-joking threats that the next unexpected item in the bagging area would be his foot.

On the way out, we talked through the user experience of these nightmare machines…

The objective of the machines is to reduce the amount of cashiers tied to tills, so that staff costs can be reduced, and making more efficient use of space so that 4 self-checkouts can be fitted in the space of two traditional cashier areas. For each section of 4 self-checkouts, there is – at least in theory – one member of staff there to help people with the process.

Sainsbury’s denies that anyone has been made unemployed as a result of the installation of the machines, and that the now excess cashier staff have been moved to ‘restocking and cleaning’ duties. (Source: Daily Mail, 5th March 2009)

Our local Sainsbury’s was renovated in September, coinciding with the opening of a large Tesco in the centre of town. Four tills were replaced with ten self-checkouts. There certainly weren’t four eager staff members looking to help the self-checkout victims.

Even as the highly tech savvy person that I am, I’ve been bewildered by the checkouts. As Bashford points out, the machines speak Engrish at best and are very temperamental. Every item MUST be put down in a bag and weighed before the next item can be scanned – this becomes a slow, laborious process when the bagged salad doesn’t weigh enough and the checkout complains.

To say the least, this is a first world problem on par with having to use my old iPhone while waiting for my broken one to be replaced on insurance claim. I realise that it’s a pathetic thing to moan about when Chile’s just been rocked to its core by an earthquake. Petty, petty, petty me.

That aside, the way I see it is that a team of engineers designed this software, another company whitelabelled it for Sainsbury’s, then a business manager decided on what scale to roll it out in stores. At what point did their standards slip so low that it was deemed good enough to replace real people? Granted, our local staff wasn’t always smiling or terribly knowledgeable, but they were human and able to deal with unexpected issues. (A nice lady even shared her tips for great pancakes. “Mix the butter into the batter so you don’t have to butter the pan!” I’d like to see a computer give me a tip that smart!)

Unless stores offer a real benefit, like further discounts or faster, more reliable software, when going through the self-checkout, consumers will continue to feel let down by the hellish experience. Personally, I’ve taken to ordering food online from Tesco – not a perfect experience either, but certainly a simpler one!

Next week, I might go stand by the checkouts and ask consumers what they think. Or maybe I’ll ask you here… What’s your take on replacing checkout staff with machines?

[Image credit: BBC News article, Rex Features picture]

13 thoughts on “Sainsbury's self-checkouts fail on so many level

  1. mapgirl

    They have installed these things all over Calgary. They are good if you just have a few items as it seems just as efficient as going through a cashier. They fail if you have a larger shop.

    I had a similar experience on a Sunday morning at Safeway. They had one cashier on the express (15 items or less) checkout, and the self-serve checkouts open. I had a shopping cart full of food. With all the “please remove the last item” and having to look up codes for produce, it took at least 20 minutes for me to complete my self-serve experience. In the end I just wanted to get out of there. I complained to the Customer Service counter, suggesting in future that they open at least one regular checkout if they are going to have the self-serve ones open, and was told that I should have asked someone to open another checkout! I didn’t think it was up to me to tell someone how to do their job!

    I agree it is a cop-out, as it means they do not need as many staff so end up saving money in the end. I feel your pain!

  2. Al

    Self scan machines can be found in a variety of Tesco stores in these parts. They’ve slowed down the whole process of checking out and generally buggered up the end of the shop that they’re installed in. To be fair, I once got £20 of free food in M&S by baffling the self scan machine to the point it didn’t actually process my card…

    As an aside, I want Tesco to stock baseball bats so I can try and self scan one, then go Office Space on the infernal machine.

    Being an engineering type, I figured that most of the problems would be solved by removing the bag weighing (as that’s the part that causes the most grief) and by upping the laser power in the scanner.

    Strangely enough, I used a newer self scan machine at a Tesco down south and the process was much slicker so I think these problems may be getting solved. Slowly.

  3. Edric

    Tesco have some self-scanners with a conveyor belt – they’re much less infuriating since they only check that you’ve put the item on the conveyor. I used to call in to Milton Tesco quite regularly around 7am to pick up bits and pieces, but now they never have human operated tills open at that time, so I’ve given up considering going in there.

  4. Phil Rees

    Early this morning, I ventured through the corridors of our local Sainsbury’s. Filling one basket with more items than is usually safe. On venturing from the wine isle like a weighed down tourist, first glancing left then right, in search of an available checkout. My gaze settling on the single cashier, three customers deep with trolleys filled to the hilt. I search a bit harder, making out an unwelcome tourette like echo, uncaringly voicing “unspecified item in the bagging area”. With bated patients I stood in that queue, for some time I might add. Until a member of staff joyously pointed back towards these new-fangled machines. Forcing my riposte, while attempting to shroud any disdain… “But will I see a discount for performing your job?”… I’ll let you to figure out her reply.

  5. Robyn Slingsby

    Aaarrggghh, I hate those self scan machines – they make me very cross. They turn what should be a simple task into an incredibly stressy one. I can’t understand why the many design faults in the system, ie the constant screeching that you haven’t put something in the bagging area and so on, haven’t been ironed out by now. This is why I would rather stand in an enormous queue to pay a real life cashier for my two items of shopping than risk being screamed at by an incompetent machine. Rant over :0)

  6. Simon Brazil

    Try getting chewing gum to register, it has almost no weight so I now throw it as hard as I can into the bag. Not to be advised for delicate items!!

    Last week I bought the Sunday Times (newspaper) and had to have one of the staff come over and authorize it as it had adult material in it, not sure what it was but I’m sure kids aren’t buying the Sunday Times for it’s illicit content!!

  7. maggie williams

    Had a v stressful encounter with a full trolley and self-scan machine at Sainsbury’s last night. Nearly left trolley, but realised I needed the shopping. Probably good for a few items, but the last thing I wanted to do after a busy day was play a game of supermarket check-outs.

  8. Dylan Jones

    I don’t know why but people don’t seem to like the self scan checkouts, they are simple, convenient and quick. Some people are so scared of using them because they don’t want to be embarrassed if they do something wrong, there is an attendant there 24/7 so there should not be any problems.

    For those shoppers who shop in the morning in supermarkets, what do you expect, if your not in work why should the supermarket draft in more cashiers, just because you are scared of using the self scan checkouts, because you think you are doing the cashiers jobs. If they took them away and then you still Q’d you would ask for them back.

    So stop complaining about these self scan checkouts as they are useful and help you get out the store quicker, not to have a gossip with the cashier! Listen to the woman telling you on the self scan instead of pushing down on the scales and then waiting for authorization because it thinks, you have put something on the scales, don’t scan something and put it straight on bag sections because it weighs it, and don’t just stand there with your payment card giving the attendant the eyes. Imagine you were the attendant, you wouldn’t be happy.

  9. peter

    I thought I’d give my local Herne Bay branch of Sainsburys a go at their self checkout machine. Just for fun really with 5 items. I had my own bag which apparently makes the process more complicated for some daft reason. Every item I scanned I kept getting the ‘unknown item in bag’ or words to that effect. I then had to wait for a human cashier to reset the bloody thing. I just felt slightly embarrassed by the whole experience. Shan’t be using them again – until forced to when all human cashiers are ‘unknown items’ !!!

  10. Nai

    Our local Sainsbury’s has also just installed several of these machines-from-hell, replacing most of the basket only checkouts. The scanning was no problem but it all took (at least) twice as long as usual, and I could find no way to avoid the irritating voice nagging me that there was an “unexplained item in bagging area” every few moments, even though all the items HAD been properly scanned through. It seemed as if an assistant had to intervene every other item for one reason or another.
    Why is it such an issue to use one’s own bags as well? Isn’t that de rigeur in these days of more environmental awareness? They really need to sort this hopeless system out so it’s more user friendly. Supermarkets are becoming more and more impersonal and dehumanised imo.
    On the plus side it will encourage me back to the local greengrocer’s and baker’s shops more often.

  11. Nathan

    I am one of the people who operate the self scan tills and very rarely have any problems with customers on them.
    apart from the “unexpected item in bagging” area issue (which is minor in comparison to, for example the till crashing) i don’t have a awful lot of call outs.
    for people who say they are only suitable for a small amount of items. i had a gentleman the other day who put £238.13 worth (113 items) of groceries through a small (10 items or fewer) self scan till with no problems bagging issues or anything. and he used his own bags (With no problem) its a simple system you scan and then place the item on the bed or in bag and LET GO OF IT don’t keep hold of it because then it cant weigh it and when the lights go green scan the next item DONT LIFT THE ITEMS OFF UNTILL YOU HAVE PRESSED FINISH AND PAY as it works by weight, so the removal of a product will cause a prompt.
    Don’t give us cashiers abuse because we ask you to use them were doing our job we don’t like asking its what were told to do. don’t ask for a discount because your doing our job because your not. and don’t stand and click your fingers were human not dogs.
    People get frustrated with them because they look at a checkout boy and think thats an easy job i could do that. and when it comes to it they can’t so the get angry because they cant do the job of a person half there age.
    Sorry rant over lol

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