Self-checkout lanes are checking out

It turns out that my avoidance of self-checkout lanes at supermarkets wasn’t just a demonstration of my personal tendency to be a stubborn old curmudgeon: major chains like Albertson’s and Big Y are phasing them out in favor of standard service lanes (Boston.com, Consumerist.com).

Of the many things I have principled objections to, using automated tools isn’t one of them — my use of ATMs vs human bank tellers is easily 20:1 in favor of robots, for example[1]. But tools have to fit the job, work well, and most importantly, offer a noticeable benefit to the end user. Self-checkout lanes at supermarkets, in my experience, offered fewer advantages than they did drawbacks. Though there was a chance of enabling a speedier exit from the store, it was more likely that I would encounter a computer barking at me that there was or wasn’t some expected item in the bagging area, an item or coupon that couldn’t be scanned, or some other unspecified failure which required a manager’s attention.

These problems highlight how important it is to consider the overall user experience. Automation may be alluring to a business looking to shave costs, but when its effect on customer satisfaction is considered, the total cost of ownership may be much higher than expected. (Not to mention some of the other concerns mentioned in the linked articles, such as intentional and unintentional theft.) Sometimes a new technology just isn’t better than its predecessor.

  1. ATMs are often finicky and have a slew of minor usability issues of their own, but nonetheless generally earn a passing grade. I’ll be signing up for a new bank soon, so mayhap a future post will chronicle my first attempt to bumble through an ATM system I’ve never used before.
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