Wednesday 9 December 2009

All Self-Service Checkouts Are Not Equal

Having just read this article about The problem with self-service checkouts on the BBC News Magazine site, I started to pen a response but it soon grew beyond a simple comment, so I thought I'd publish it here instead.

Let's look at two stores differing approach to self-service.

Sainsbury's variant seems specifically designed to be as inconvenient as possible, with a tiny area allocated for you to tortuously scan all your shopping and then put-each-item-one-at-a-time-into-the-bagging-area. The system is a nightmare if you are trying to pay for a large grocery trip.

To date, I have never had an experience with Sainsbury's self-service where the system didn't have a problem of some description requiring a staff member to meander over and enter a code to allow me to continue. It always falls over if I try to use my own bags rather than taking fistfuls of the orange plastic ones provided. I was in there last weekend and the ghastly thing allowed me to finish scanning and bagging all my shopping before unceremoniously dumping me back to a booting screen, before the Windows XP boot progress screen appeared. At times, I have seen a staff member allocated to each self-service till, which somewhat defeats the point of the things, doesn't it?

It is also stupendously slow. Heaven forbid that you scan three of the same item in quick succession - the system will have a complete spaz on you. No, you must scan each item very deliberately, then place it on the weigh bridge in the bagging area so that the system can be sure that you haven't scanned a banana instead of the tumble dryer you are attempting to pilfer.

Conversely, Waitrose' QuickCheck system is a joy to use and a genuine time saver. It is equally at home on those occasions when you run in to grab a handful of items, or when you have a major shop to do.

Using a hand-held scanner you carry with you, you can bag your shopping as you take it from the shelves, so there is no ridiculous unpacking to do at the checkout. The scanner will even alert you to special offers related to items you have scanned and give you a running total of your bill, with any discounts precalculated. When you are done, you simply scan an 'end of shopping' barcode at the self service till and feed it your credit card. Waitrose' shoplifting protection consists of random 're-check' spot checks, where the contents of your bags are checked against the contents of your hand-held scanner. I've had three re-checks ever, and I've been using QuickCheck for years, so I do not begrudge them at all.

The fundamental difference between the two systems is that the Waitrose system is built on a basis of the store trusting its customers to scan their items correctly and pay the appropriate amount for their shopping, while Sainsbury's system treats its users as incompetent at best, and criminal at worst. The difference is striking, and leaves me clearly in favour of one approach over the other.


  1. Off topic, sorry...

    I'm hoping you will develop some sort of paid add-on for VB4!


  2. *sigh* I see that my local Tesco has adopted the same rubbish system as Sainsbury's.

  3. The system Waitrose uses is the the same that Safeway had, they called it 'Shop & Go' with the depest regret I was working there at the time, only for a couple of months though.

    It did lead to a lot of thefts, when I had to do a rescan 9 times out of 10 the rescan came to more than what the customer had go to which led to the customer saying something on the lines of, Oh I forgot a few things wouldn't scan.

    It's a bloody brillian idea if you could trust people to be honest but these days you can't anymore.