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The Struggle Between Efficiency and Simplicity

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Self-checkout kiosks are popping up just about everywhere: airports, movie theaters, subway and bus stations, photo labs and even supermarkets. And while the technology has improved productivity and efficiency in some of these venues, it has lagged in at least one.

An article highlighted the surprising failure of supermarket self-checkout lanes:

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Turns out that even major chains are beginning to phase out these systems:

An internal study by [one large retailer] found delays in its self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons, payments and other problems; intentional and accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less-expensive varieties; and other problems that helped guide its decision to bag the self-serve lanes.

Stores are finally starting to look at their customer base when deciding if self-serve lanes are the best route. Instead of just blindly going for the technology, they’re analyzing the system.

Home Depot and some other businesses, which cater to customers with a do-it-yourself mentality, report success with their self-serve lanes.But not all supermarket shoppers share that mentality, and whether they embrace or reject the self-serve option may come down to demographics — such as whether they’re in a tech-savvy region — and other factors that the supermarkets cannot control.

“I think some of the stores are just deciding that, on the balance, it’s a negative. Other stores, because they have a different composition of shoppers, are deciding to keep it,” John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said of the self-serve option.”I don’t think this is as much a referendum on the technology as much as it is a match between the technology and the customer base,” he said.

In total, while some grocery stores are keeping their systems, the overall consensus is that the technology has steadily declined in value.

consulting on self check outs

© Flickr user pin add

While failure is always interesting, we want to focus on one possible culprit for this trend. Supermarkets face a classic problem:  the struggle between efficiency and simplicity.

To improve efficiency, grocery stores need to reduce waste to see more organizational productivity while finding ways to make shoppers productive, which in turn creates productivity growth. Given the outstanding success many other business have gained from these self-serve kiosks, can any of us really blame the industry for at least trying them out?

Businesses might want efficiency, but customers want a shopping experience marked by simplicity. When we buy groceries there are a lot of steps in the process—scanning, weighing, bagging, entering membership and product codes, and processing coupons and payments. For many of us, if waiting in line means someone else will take care of processing the information, we’ll gladly bide our time reading a magazine until it’s our turn. Lastly, while self-checkout lanes might seem convenient and empowering, a trained staff member is probably much better at the task. An abundance of errors and suddenly a slight convenience can turn into a major inconvenience.

Just like self-service kiosks, new office technologies designed to increase efficiency can sometimes backfire. A new approach or tool might have the potential to be incredibly fast but be far too complex for anyone to use it. If there are forgotten operations manuals, half-completed internal projects, or underutilized software programs at your company, call our productivity consultants. We’ll help you become more efficient without sacrificing simplicity. That’s what productivity really is: increasing output while increasing satisfaction.

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