Helping yourself

The bigwigs in retailing have talked about this for ages.

Last week I tried out the funky new self-checkout computermachines at Big W at QV. Why queue to have someone serve you, when you can serve yourself?

It’s a bit like a combination of using one of those price checker scanner things, and an ATM. You scan each item, and it tells you to put them into the bag as you scan. When you’re finished, you tell it how you’re paying, and use a card or cash to do so. Then you take your change and receipt, and walk out with your purchases.


So what, I wondered, was to stop you just walking out with stuff? I asked the guy standing by to help people, and he confirmed my suspicions: the magnetic doo-dah that sets off the alarms gets de-magnetised as you scan/place in bag. There’s probably some powerful magnetic forces around that area, since you don’t have to specifically rub the item on a pad like you see in some shops.

The process certainly saved some time, and the kids were most impressed. “That is so cool”, remarked Isaac.

Not so cool, of course, is the reduced numbers of staff required to run the place if more people start using them. But with the choice being to queue for ages for a checkout person, or do it yourself, as with ATMs 20-25 years ago, I suspect people will gradually adapt. It’ll be interesting to see if it spreads to other shops so readily.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

18 replies on “Helping yourself”

We’ve had that self scan option for our Grocery store “Loblaws” for just over a year now. Great, awesome and wonderful for that small order of under 10 items. Anything over that, or small children that touch the pressure sensitive weighing area and you are in for a head ache! I’ve not heard of them being used for a department store before, however! How cool is that? Yes, less staff perhaps? But, is it more convenient for us, the customer? I wonder. Anyway, the thing I find annoying about the self-serve is looking up the produce and the bread in the computerized list. That can get tricky and annoying to find the “French bread” or the “Brown Mushrooms” in amongst all the levels of items.

I still prefer the human touch and will continue to use regular checkouts. I’m also trying to boycott the stores that have the self-serve area as I don’t want to put people out of a job.

When James Watt invented the steam engine, thousands of ten year old boys pulling coal trucks were put out of a job. But that left them free to do other things, such as live to be eleven.

(pinched from some book, can’t remember which one)

I find the check-out-yourself is slower than using a human. In general, I don’t like it. But given a choice between waiting for a human and immediately going to one of these, often I’ll choose the later.

There won’t be magnetic forces neutralising the tags. Instead every RFID tag in the shop will be unique. Two different cans of baked beans will have two different tags (if they have them, which they would have to in order to prevent theft with tags).

When you scan one, it gets registered as a tag number that has been paid for (as long as you pay). So while the security gate thing will recognise all those items as being taken out of the shop, the database behind it all will not sound the alarm because it knows you have paid.

When a tag number is taken out of circulation, it would eventually be put back on another item in future.

That’s how I would run it anyway. In reality, I’d say they have RFID on a small range of items and the rest just have their ordinary, printed bar codes. Not every manufacturer would be putting RFID tags into its labels yet and the shop isn’t going to employ people (gasp) to stick tags on every item it sells. So they’re just relying on bluff. You see the gates and think it knows if you’ve paid for all those things. But really the gate only sees a handfull of them. The security guard (or whatever they call him) sees you and makes sure you pay.

If I’m wrong and they really do have RFID tags individually stuck on every item over its label, and they really do de-activate each tag rather than remove its ID from the list of un-paid-for items, then I say, “Wow, what a waste of effort when they could just employ enough checkout operators to staff every queue!”

One further point: when you place the product in the bag, after scanning it, the machine also checks that the weight of the product you placed in the bag matches the weight of the product you scanned. That prevents you from scanning a cheap product and bagging an expensive one (or, rather, makes it a bit harder).

They tried this several years ago at Woolworths (Purity at the time) in Glenorchy (Tasmania). I believe it got pulled out due to the high instances of theft that occured directly after its installation so unless the systems have drastically changed they cant be that foolproof.

Conversely the shop is currently getting remodelled and the “express” area has changed from one queue feeding several checkouts to each chceckout having its own queue, the new system “seems” to be faster although I’m sure thats open to debate and at the least having several smaller queues does lessen the crowding that one queue produced…

I LOVE the Big W self serve things. So much fun. So much easier. Almost addictive. The only thing worse is Ebay. At least the machine doesn’t try to ingratiate itself to you by asking “How’s your day” when it really doesn’t care. I don’t think I’ll ever use a real checkout at BigW again. Bring em on elsewhere.

The question really is, if everyone moves to the self-checkout things, will still be quicker? I spose the only difference will be if they can have heaps more of the self-check things open when otherwise they would only be able to have a few human checkouts open.

Something that could potentially save time though is to keep humans for fast scanning and entering of codes then have a self pay area for people who want pay with CC/EFTPOS rather than cash since that can save a bit of time that it takes to get an approval back from the bank. Certainly, Coles used to have cash only express lanes, though changed to 12 items or less, I guessing which was to be more competitive with Safeway.

I have used the self check out at QV and it was fun. We made a big theatrical deal of it. (The red laser light will not burn through your skin into your bones. Are you sure that scanned correctly? We will be collared by security. Put it through again. Look customer service, we have been double charged! I suppose it will work ok if you take out one bunch of grapes, weigh the remaining and then slip the bunch back in.

I ticked off that experience and never used it since.

I don’t think these things will be any quicker, checkout operators use these things day in day out and certainly the supermarkets we use they are lightning fast. You on the other hand use it maybe once or twice a week, so you’re bound to be slower.

There is also the problem that if you forget to scan something it’s your problem, you haven’t got the defense that the checkout person forgot to scan it.

Basically these things are just there to reduce staff count, they don’t care if you take longer to go through the checkout as long as it costs them less.

I used the self check-out at a U.S. supermarket last year and was creeped out by the signature-free process. I know signature verification is pretty lax now anyway, but I hate the idea that these checkouts could encourage card theft (or at least make it easier for the thief to rack up purchases in the first 24 hours before the victim realises the card’s been stolen). It all seems too easy.

Why wouldn’t they use the PIN on credit cards? That’s easy and Mobil pay-at-the-pump does it.

I love the self service at Big W QV, it’s the only way to get out of there without standing around in line for 10 minutes. Plus, because I only usually buy one or two things when I go there, I figure it frees up the other checkouts for people with basket and trolley loads of stuff.

“Ghastly it all is. Absolutely ghastly. Just don’t even talk about it. Look at this door,” he said stepping through it. The irony circuits cut in to his voice modulator as he mimicked the style of the sales brochure. “All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.”

Heh! A great novelty. I’ve used this system at Big W in Highpoint and it’s a bit of fun. Sure maybe one day they will take over from checkout chicks, but I doubt it will be in our lifetime.

I alwayse use them when I get the chance (admittedly though I’m a tech addicted gadget loving freak). The fact that everyone tends to be absolutely terrified of them and will wait for hours which means I can breeze straight through is just an added bonus.

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