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More self checkouts (and customers?) coming to Walmart


NCR Corporation got a big order from Walmart this week that will allow the retailer to expand its self-checkout capability and potentially attract shoppers turned off by Walmart’s long checkout lines.

NCR said it would be installing 10,000 of its SelfServ Checkout lanes in more than 1,200 Walmart stores. That works out to about eight self checkouts per store, although the companies didn’t provide details concerning Walmart’s installed base of self-checkouts.

"Our customers are shopping differently than they ever have, and we’re using innovative technologies like self-checkouts to meet their needs," said Jeff McAllister, Walmart’s SVP of innovation. "Our multiple checkout options give us a unique advantage to provide our customers with the quick, easy and convenient checkout experience they tell us they want."

These are not new revelations on the part of Walmart shoppers who have long bemoaned the retailer’s lengthy checkout lines. It got so bad several years ago that as part of a strategy known as Project Impact, Walmart set out to make its store experience "fast, clean and friendly." There was much attention paid to the checkout process and Walmart executives regularly spoke of the benefits of a new labor scheduling system that was supposed to better allocate labor hours to peak shopping times and accelerate throughput at checkstands. It appeared to work for awhile, but lately lines seem to be longer (a purely anecdotal observation) and there is a renewed emphasis on labor productivity as a mean to drive profitability.

If the increased usage of self checkouts can help Walmart alleviate some of its front end issues that would be a good thing. There is a segment of shoppers who presumably would like to save money and live better by shopping at Walmart, but avoid doing so because it can, at times, mean waiting in line for extended periods of time.

Technology holds great promise and self checkout systems will take many forms in the coming years. They will become more prevalent and cashiers will become an increasingly endangered species. This is a point we made last week in an article about a new Sam’s Club in Kansas City. The article stated that, "Sam’s Club cashiers could become an endangered species if an expanded test of a payment platform at a new club in Kansas City is embraced by members."

Sam’s is testing a new checkstand configuration called a "convertible registers," that can be used by cashier or a customer as a self checkout. The net effect is every checkout lane is open all the time because members will have the option to check themselves out if staffed lanes are too long or they simply prefer the self service method. Sam’s currently has self checkout systems in about half of its roughly 600 U.S. locations.

Almost every retailer that has installed self-checkouts will declare that customers love them for their speed and convenience. Of course they do. But it’s not because shoppers love the technology and scanning and bagging purchases is so much fun. It is because many retailers made the checkout process such a miserable experience by curtailing staffing levels that any alternative is seen as preferable.

Some retailers will continue to offer ample cashier levels to showcase a commitment to service and as a means of differentiation. Meanwhile, the way things are going it makes you wonder if eventually retailers will follow the lead of the airline and banking industries and begin charging a cost recovery fees of those shoppers choose to interact with a human cashier.

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