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]