Jan 05 2012

Is Automated Checkout the Way of the Future? — Quick Take

Retailers are embracing automated checkout in ways that may change how consumers shop.

Automation makes for efficiency. It can be an unsettling force, as it has the ability to wipe out redundancies that people have come to rely on, but that’s the way it goes with technology.

Grocery stores are relying on wireless handheld devices for inventory management instead of pencil and paper, and the ATM has reduced the need for bank tellers in the financial industry. Now, automated checkout is poised to do the same in retail.

Andrew McAfee, an MIT principal research scientist and Harvard Business Review blogger, recently saw something curious while visiting his parents in Chicago: Their Walgreens had no cashiers.

I’ve seen plenty of self-checkout stations, but they’ve always been accompanied by at least one human cashier to accommodate customers who for whatever reason — unfamiliarity, techno-fear, the desire to chat, whatever — don’t want to deal with a machine. I assumed the same would be true at this Walgreens. Mom and Gene were adamant that it was 100% self-checkout, so we got bundled up and walked over to get the straight dope.

They were right and I was wrong. There are six NCR self-checkout kiosks at the entrance / exit, and no cashiers at all there. There are human cashiers at the photo lab and the pharmacy and customers can take their purchases to these two locations if they want, but at the main checkout area you can’t get rung up by a person any more.

The NCR machines accept cash and credit / debit cards, and Mom and Gene told me that they work pretty well most of the time. A friendly and helpful Walgreens manager named Tony, who came over when he saw me taking pictures, agreed. He said that his store had been cashier-free for a couple years, and was one of only three in the country to have taken the leap to 100% self-checkout. The machines were easy enough to use and pretty reliable, he said, and didn’t change the amount of shoplifting one way or the other because “if people are going to steal, they’re going to steal.”

What do you think? Will retailers always need the human touch of a cashier, or will the automated checkout machines do the trick?

Read more about McAfee’s experience with automated checkouts on his blog.

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