Self-checkout (also known as Self-service checkout, or a Semi Attended Customer Activated Terminal (SACAT)) machines provide a mechanism for customers to process their own purchases from a retailer. They are an alternative to the traditional cashier-staffed checkout. In practice, the customer assumes the job of the cashier by scanning and applying payment for the items themselves.
As of the end of 2008, there were 92,600 self-checkout units worldwide. The number was estimated to reach 430,000 units by 2014.
In self-checkout systems, the customer is required to scan the barcodes themselves, input the types of items such as fruit and vegetable (usually with a touchscreen display); weigh them, if applicable; and place all scanned items into a "bagging area". The weight observed in the bagging area is verified against previously stored information to ensure that the correct item is bagged, allowing the customer to proceed only if the observed and expected weights match.
Payment by various methods may be accepted by the machines: card via EFTPOS, debit/credit cards, electronic food assistance cards, cash via coin slot and bank note scanner, and in-store gift cards where applicable. Most coupons also have barcodes and can be scanned the same way that items are scanned, although some require entry by a member of staff.
The benefit to the retailer in providing self-checkout machines is in reduced labour costs: one attendant can often run four to six checkout lanes with the work of the cashier now being assumed by the customer.
Customers who do not want to interact with the cashier or be a part of the queue where the current customer and cashier are conversing can now use the self checkout to avoid those situations.
Self-checkout is vulnerable to some shoplifting techniques. In some cases the machine will pick up the attempt to steal or else cause the shopper to alter behavior (e.g., put an item not on the scales but somewhere else where it should not be put and will be noticed by the system supervisor). For example, in 2007, a man was charged with replacing the tag of a plasma TV with a $4.88 DVD, and trying to purchase it through self-checkout. However studies suggest that a large proportion of shoppers are tempted to shoplift due to the relative ease of fooling self checkouts. For example, a person who (without intent to steal) does not scan an item, may remember this was easy and fail to scan other items deliberately. A 2012 survey with 4952 respondents in the UK found that a third of shoppers had stolen this way, with around a quarter of the remainder stating they were deterred by the risk of detection. Non-barcode items such as produce, and store staff overriding (or ignoring) checkout alerts were singled out as vulnerabilities, and poverty was not seen as a major factor. Overall as at 2012, the founder of one store video surveillance system estimated that "Theft — intentional or not — is up to five times higher with self checkout than when cashiers are working", although the behaviours of shoplifting are becoming well known, and stores better at detecting them. A 2014 survey in of 2634 respondents confirmed the same general findings, but commented that the cost of additional theft was evidently seen as "tolerable" compared to the cost of other processes, such as manned checkouts, and harm due to poorer customer service arising from the slowness of manned versus automated checkouts.
Self-checkouts are also criticised for reducing the possibilities for customers and store staff to interact, and customer service in general; although self-checkouts can allow for multilingual service. For example, Tesco's Welsh stores which can serve customers in Welsh, While finding a large enough number of well speaking Welsh staff can be a difficult thing because of decline in number of people speaking. Self-checkout lanes may lack some rather basic customer interactions, like informing the customer that a coupon was not accepted, and why (at Meijer they take the coupon, but don't subtract anything from the bill, without notifying the customer.)
Early versions of the machines have proven to be insecure for computer networks; a self-checkout terminal is both a point of sale device and an unsupervised, network-connected computer by its nature. Both Target Corporation and Home Depot were targets of a serious cybersecurity breach by the Rescator criminal hacking ring in 2013 and 2014 respectively, in which the machines were used to load specialized hacking malware onto the corporations' networks and steal millions of credit card numbers.
Being more complex, they are more subject to failure. For example, they employ scales used to measure if an item is in the bagging area, and if that scale fails the register no longer operates. Also, in a manned checkout lane, any simple problems like lack of receipt paper would be immediately fixed by the operator, while self checkout lanes may not be fixed for quite some time. This lack of reliability can be compensated for by having excess lanes available or enough staff on hand to perform immediate maintenance.
An alternative system (self-scanning) consists of a portable barcode scanner that is used by the customer to scan and bag items while shopping. When the customer has finished shopping, the scanner is brought to a checkout kiosk, where the information from the barcode scanner is downloaded to the kiosk, usually in conjunction with a customer loyalty card. The customer pays and receives a receipt at the checkout kiosk. The integrity of the system is maintained through the use of random audits or RFID.
Suppliers like ITAB, NCR, Wincor-Nixdorf and others have manufactured hybrid checkout systems that allows the checkout counter to be switched between either a cashier operated mode or a customer self-service mode.
HybridCheckout from PeoplePos has taken the hybrid concept further by allowing the cashier and customer to do parallel and simultaneous scanning. This is achieved by adding a customer scanning area next to the cashier scanning area. The HybridCheckout solution allows for an increased throughput and a combination of cashier operated scanning and customer self-service.
BBC News reported in December 2009 on the rise of self-service tills and how error messages like 'unexpected item in the bagging area' are becoming part of the new shopping experience and even given rise to t-shirts bearing the slogan.
An appeal court in California confirmed in September 2013 a bill banning sales of alcoholic beverages in self-service checkouts. The law requires alcohol only to be sold in face-to-face transactions with store clerks.
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- Automated retailing
- Cash register
- Point of sale
- Radio-frequency identification
- Shadow work
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