MANCHESTER, Conn. — When Keith Wearne goes grocery shopping, checking out with a cashier is worth the few extra moments, rather than risking that a self-serve machine might go awry and delay him even more.
Most shoppers side with Wearne, studies show. With that in mind, some grocery store chains nationwide are bagging the do-it-yourself option, once considered the wave of the future, in the name of customer service.
“It’s just more interactive,” Wearne said during a recent shopping trip at Manchester’s Big Y Foods. “You get someone who says hello; you get a person to talk to if there’s a problem.”
Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out self-serve lanes. Some other regional chains and major players have also reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes.
Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC, has said it’s also phasing out self-service lanes.
Kroger says it’s keeping the self-service option because customers like it, though one remodeled store replaced it with another quick-checkout method that uses a cashier.
Market studies cited by the 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.
Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used traditional cashier-staffed lanes.
Supermarket chains started introducing self-serve lanes about 10 years ago. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts as they encouraged shoppers to do it themselves.
The reality, though, was mixed. Some shoppers loved them and were quick converts, while other reactions ranged from disinterest to outright hatred – much of it shared on blogs or in Facebook groups.
An internal study by Big Y 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.
Phil Lempert, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based food industry analyst, noted that supermarkets have a few other motivations to get rid of the self-serve lanes beyond customer service.
They will eventually need to replace checkout computers to read new types of bar codes, so there’s little business sense in keeping and replacing those self-serve machines.
The growing trend toward using bar code-reading programs on smartphones is likely to change everything in supermarket shopping over time, he said.