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Tuesday 28 October 2003

Bad User Interface Bites Back

So the K-Mart here in Front Royal has, it seems, decommissioned their self-checkout lanes. They’re currently being used to display 7-Up cakes and Dracula costumes.

Decommissioned K-Mart self-checkout

The problem with these things wasn’t that they weren’t needed; they are. On weekends, this understaffed K-Mart has long lines at all the tills, and certainly loses business from people who just don’t feel like standing around waiting to hand over their money.

The problem was that these were self-checkouts of the bags-on-a-scale variety. These try to keep the customers honest by weighing the bags after every item is scanned; if the weight of the bag doesn’t increase by the amount the system thinks it should increase, the recording barks at the customer, telling him to remove the last item from the bag. Every place I’ve seen with one of these has the same problem.

So because the store lives in terror that a customer might try to slip unpaid-for items into the bags, these do-it-yourself tills make life even harder for the customers. The customers are now faced with the choice of dealing with these annoying machines, or waiting in the long lines; they decide instead to go somewhere else entirely.

Today’s businessman seeks to improve his own profit margin while not taking on any increaseed risk or uncertainty of any kind himself. Self-service tills that were not so paranoid would be useful, but, yes, they would result in increased shrinkage as customers walked out of the store with a few items they hadn’t paid for.

Shrinkage could be reduced to near zero, however, by returning to the style of retailing of a century ago, where customers came up to the counter and told the clerks what they wanted. The clerks got the merchandise from shelves that were not accessible to the public, and presented it to the customer.

As it turns out, this isn’t very good for the retailer, as it’s a labor-intensive system, and it pretty much eliminates the possibility of impulse purchasing. The modern retailer understands that the risk from shoplifters is offset by the advantage of having the customer fetch his own goods.

We’re lucky that retail made this leap decades ago, because it probably wouldn’t be tried today.

Posted by tino at 16:36 28.10.03
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I actuually tend to use the self checkout lines as they tend not to have lines and are thus slightly faster than normal checkouts with lines. But at least the variety the A&P supermarket company (this includes Super Fresh locally in Baltimore & DC)

Below is a picture of the unit:

Now what you can’t see in this picture is that there is an infrared beam that counts the items as you scan them and controls the belts movement. Somrthing interesting that I have noticed is that you can’t scan the next item until the previous item passes through this beam. This effectively functions as a speed bump for more expert users. Now another speed bump in this system is if you have any items without a bar code (such as loose produce). In those cases you need to use a touch screen interface (that screen underneath the red/gree/yellow lights). Depending on what you choose you might have to navigate through multiple screens just to tell it you have some turnips or brussle sprouts. Once you’ve completed your order you run into another speed bump. You have to tell the touch screen you are done….then you have to navigate several more screens to tell it you don’t have coupons (or you do in which case you will need to scan them), do you have a club card, payment method, if paying by debit card do you want some cash back….if different from teh canned values enter value. Then you can actually pay. Now if you chose cash you have to feed the bills into the same sort of device you use to get a Soda Pop from a vending machine. If you choose credit or debit you are directed to another interface (it is right there to the left oof the touch screen…but actually it is normally even farther back). Now that interface is completely ignorant of what you just told the touch screen….so you’ll need to tell it again you want credit or debit. Now if you choose cash back look at your knees because that is where the money comes out. Finally bag your groceries. And have a nice day.

In other userinterface changes of late. Giant has changed their credit card interface. It used to be that you could swipe you card, enter your PIN (if paying by debit) tell it you wanted cash back and how much and only have to wait to approve the total. Apparently something was wrong with that system as now you can only swipe your card prior to the cashier completing ringing up your order, only then can you enter your PIN any cash back you want.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at October 28, 2003 09:36 PM

That’s the good kind of supermarket self-service till. They have those at the Food Lion in Front Royal, and they’re very popular.

They’re also, I think, more expensive. In any case, they’re unfortunately rare.

Posted by: Tino at October 28, 2003 09:43 PM

That credit or debit dance drives me nuts, but I always get that in person too. What posessed them to have the till and the Visa terminal not talk to each other? I wonder if that’s an accounting thing that’s done to make theft more difficult. For the cashier, that is.

Harris Teeter also went with the autotills that constantly accuse you of stealing, as did the new Martin’s. Maybe people really were stealing stuff at the K-Mart. I wouldn’t exactly be shocked.

Posted by: Nicole at October 29, 2003 08:12 PM

The self scan unit you describe at Super Fresh is wonderful. I use it at least 3 times a week, and it works like a charm.

Like your Kmart, the Kmart across the road from the SuperFresh uses it selfscans for display, this time of year for Easter Bunny baskets.

It is a shame. I used to love checking out using them. But since they are not in use, I find myself walking out of Kmart not buying anything.

Posted by: at March 8, 2004 03:29 PM

I’m a food lion employee, and I deal with this sort of thing all the time. I work as a bookkeeper, but also do my share of cashiering. The bottom line is that the store wants to spend the least it can on upgrading technology- just enough so that the customer won’t complain. In the back we still have that OLD kind of dot-matrix printer for all the reports and paperwork, and the reciept printer’s share the dot-matrix woes. Of course vastly superior technology is available, but management isn’t about to upgrade unless they will see a direct and immediate profit from this.

To answer another question, the reason that debit/credit has to be entered twice is for the same reason windows asks you if you want to delete an item right after you just clicked the delete button. It simply confirms and finalizes the order so that a person can backup if they realize they really wanted to hit the credit key or whatever.

Anyway, email me if you want: Par45Taffy@aol.com, but be sure to put “Food Lion” in the title so I’ll read it. I get a lot of junk at that address.


Posted by: Mark at March 15, 2004 04:18 PM