Self-checkouts: worth switching supermarkets for?

When supermarkets in Edmonton started introducing self-checkout machines to their till areas last year, I was elated. More often than not, my complete purchase numbers less than 10 items, and I always found myself in for a lengthy wait, even in the so-called “express” lines. I know some people are against the idea of having to process their own groceries, but I find that it greatly decreases the time I spend in line, so a little extra effort is worth it to me. Having tried the machines at Save-on Foods, Superstore and Safeway, I can say that they are definitely not created equal.

Save-on Foods is, hands down, my favourite grocery chain. The stores are generally clean, they have a great selection of produce, and the prices are fairly reasonable (particularly if I am only there to pick up a few items). I remember being very impressed with their self-check outs when I first used them – the interface was easy to understand, vegetables were classified alphabetically by name, and an attendant was always standing by to help. Also, to encourage flow through the store on a discount Tuesday, they capped the maximum number of items at 15 for self-checkout users – a great idea. After a while though, I started to notice how particular their system was. For example, I like to use my own reusable grocery bag, and in order to do this, I must have the attendant swipe their pass to override the system. Also, the machines are very finicky about bagging the scanned item right away – they do not hesitate to remind the user of this before allowing another item to be scanned. Still, even with the minor inconveniences at the till, I find the entire shopping experience at Save-on to be the most enjoyable of the three, and that keeps me coming back.

Superstore, with their competitive prices across the board, is undoubtedly my choice when I am planning a larger-volume shopping trip. But the lines to their staffed tills, particularly late in the evenings and on weekends, stretch out into the aisles, and are always a deterrent to visiting the store. For that reason, the self-checkouts were a welcome sight. What I didn’t expect, however, was that so many of the machines would be down so much of the time. I have yet to encounter a situation where all of the machines are operational, or a time when the attendant is actually free to provide timely assistance (message to Galen Weston: get off the television and use that money to fix your self check-outs and have more staff available for troubleshooting). I also think a maximum item limit would help speed things up, as nothing is more disheartening than seeing a customer with 1001 items to check out, but no clue on how to use the machine. I will say that the Superstore machines are more forgiving than those at Save-on, as there is an option right at the start that allows users to tell the system that they will be using greenboxes or bags, and the machine automatically adjusts the weight allowance. In addition, the Superstore machines are definitely more patient, and provide the customer with more time to bag the item after scanning. And yet, in spite of these allowances, the aesthetics of Superstore and their lack of in-stock produce will keep me away for my day-to-day grocery needs.

Last but not least – Safeway. I will admit to having the least amount of experience with their machines, but they resemble, at least on the outset, the self-checkouts at Save-on. Safeway has programmed in a handy “most used codes” page for vegetables, which does save some time, but as I have only used their terminals a handful of times, I can’t pinpoint their nuances in the same way as I can for the other two stores.

Overall, while self-checkouts aren’t the reason why I visit a particular store, they have made my visits more seamless.

Have you been turned by the self-checkout revolution? Do you have your own terminal preferences?

18 thoughts on “Self-checkouts: worth switching supermarkets for?

  1. As a former Superstore cashier, I will have to say that I think I know how to scan my items faster than most people and the self checkouts are absolutely excellent when you only have 10 items or less.

    The only ones I’ve used so far have been the Safeway ones, but they’re relatively painless. No complaints. Other generally good self-checkouts is in Home Depot.

    My complaints however happen when sometimes the interface isn’t as intuitive in letting you know when to swipe your credit card and sometimes the proximity of the box where you swipe is inconvenient. Or, worse, there’s two places to swipe and you have to figure out if it’s by the monitor to swipe or by the other side — some places solve this problem by just TAPING one of the swipers shut.

    Also, I get annoyed about placing stuff inside a bag. What if you have only two items and you don’t NEED a bag?

  2. I don’t really have any issues with self check-out, other than the over loaded customers. It is brilliant for quick in and out purchases, but how can people really think it’s OK to run $100 worth of produce through?

    I agree with the ‘place stuff in bag’ statement. Especially at Wal-Mart, where the reaction time can be so slow between scans. You can be well into trying to swipe your next item, and bang, the screen changes and is asking you to bag your first item. *shakes fist*

    I find that Sobey’s suffers from the Superstore syndrome as well. Plenty of machines, but not that many working.

  3. I think Save-on-Foods (at least the DT Jasper Ave location) has located its self-served terminals the best. I did have a very frustrating experience once where the supervising cashier literally came to help me and override the machine a dozen times.

    I love my Safeway at Bonnie Doon. They placed the self-served terminals far away from the Express lanes, which I think was a brilliant move. Much better than the craziness which is the lack-of-clear-lineup-spaces at the Superstore on Calgary Trail.

    I must say no self-served terminal has mastered the reusable bag system. I hate that there are only two spots for bags at most places, and the spinning carousel of bags is even worse for using reusable bags. With my huge purse in tow, and my lack of planning re: not getting a basket, I end up juggling and feeling overwhelmed trying to find space for everything at the terminal.

    Still – I much prefer this to the cashier system most of the time.

    Another brownie point for Save-on-Foods; I saw them teach a senior how to use the system, very patiently, whereas most places would simply shuffle him off to a cashier. Empowering!

  4. I agree about the bagging issue. I use the Sobey’s self-checks most often, but get so annoyed because I have to ask for help in order to use my own reusable grocery bags. And yes, I’ve been know to say “Shut up!” rather loudly to the machine lady’s voice when she says the weight is off. They should all be programmed like Superstore’s with that option, because at the moment, those self-checks aren’t really encouraging people to be more environmentally friendly!

  5. I don’t mind using them at all, but I hate that all of them suck at processing coupons. What’s the point if I have to wait and wait and wait for an employee to come over?

  6. I agree with everyone here..isn’t the point of a self checkout supposed to be that it saves time? I find that it often takes longer to checkout groceries especially when the voice is telling you to place your goods in the bag when you already did! I try to avoid using them..unless I only have two items or less and no produce.

    On another note, I didn’t even know that Sobey’s had self-checkouts!

  7. I do not care for the self check out thing yet. I am not sure what it is.
    My daughter however, pushes me always to use them. And she is much quicker than me at it as well.
    Maybe it’s a habit that needs to change?

  8. Is it really necessary to put your items in a bag?

    I have my own tote that I use to shop and take my groceries home in. I just place my items on the bagging scale and if I don’t have any more room on the scale or it’s a bigger item, I just hit the “skip bagging” button.

    I prefer the self-checkouts because most of the time the baggers are rough with my produce and they suck at bagging, and I end up with far too many bags.

    The Oliver Square Safeway and downtown Save On self checkouts are great. I especially like how they are laid out at Save On. Sounds like the self checkouts at Wal-Mart are just as slow as the regular checkouts. *shudder*

  9. Agreed that the self-checkouts really don’t encourage people to be environmentally friendly. Before I made use of the “skip bagging” option, I used to just place everything on the bag side, then place them into my own reusable bag after I had paid – the system can’t complain at that point. Of course, this was only really possible if I had a few items to juggle.

    I also didn’t know that Sobeys had self-checkouts – the stores that I visit sure don’t.

  10. I’m a fan of Home Depot’s self checkout – which looks amazingly similar to safeway’s. Handy little cupon or used gift card slot is nice, and swiping the side of the screen seems better than the pin pad thinger as per Superstore. Superstore’s second app is better than the first, but it’s still not great.

  11. I’m not a fan of self-checkouts in most situations. While I’ll occasionally use them if I only have one or two items, I generally refuse to use them on principle. Unless I’m going to get a discount for ringing in my own purchases (which, at least hypothetically, saves the store staffing costs) I don’t feel that I should do someone else’s job for free.

    I’ve also noticed that, as self-checkouts become more ubiquitous, it’s becoming more common to get stuck behind the guy who clearly doesn’t know how to use the machine, but thought it would be a great idea to self-check 50 items (usually, the clerk ends up having to more or less do it for the guy). In these situations, I find that it’s generally faster to go through a till with a cashier.

    Finally, I tend to view self-checkouts as yet another piece of well-meaning technology that has the unfortunate side effect of serving yet another time between human beings. No longer do we need to smile and make small talk with the cashier; now we can use the self-checkout and stay isolated in our own personal bubble even when we’re out in public. Count me out.

  12. I am so dissapointed with the introduction of these machines, essentially turning grocery stores into giant vending machines where you don’t have to worry about having any person-to-person interactions in your day.

    My biggest issue, they put people out of jobs!

    In a marketplace, it is the responsibility of the vendor to secure the payment for their goods – not the customer. Now, it seems like the companies are devoting less resources to the staffed checkouts to keep the lineups long, so you will get comfortable with checking out yourself. If they want me to do the work associated with paying them, then I should get a discount!

    Just my two cents on the matter.

    BTW – I really enjoy the blog Sharon, thanks for all the great recommendations!

  13. My experience is based on the supermarkets here in Vancouver and might be different from others.

    I have used the self-checkout in Safeway and Superstore, the closest Save-on, which I seldom go to, does not have the self-scan machines yet. Overall, I am a believer of the self-scan, if you know how to use it. About 9 out of 10 instance where I am stuck in the queue is because the people are clueless on what to do. For example, the machine is telling them to put the item into the “bag” and, instead, they put it back into the cart or somewhere else – other than the platform, that is. Likewise, after they hit “Pay Now”, they rush to swipe the debit/credit card (repeatedly, I must say) without realizing the screen is asking them to choose a payment method. Unlike others, I don’t care if you have 100 items in your cart – if you know how to use it, it is a fast process.

    While it is true it sort of severs the human interaction, given the speed at which the cashiers scan your items, I would rather skip that and favour accuracy. With self-scans, I am scanning my stuff and I can see if the price is correct or not – I have caught errors at least twice and, as a result, was given the item “free” (*). Given the speed a lot of cashiers work (I must say I am sometimes amazed of how they do it!), I might not catch that until I after I loaded my bags/cart, if at all. Now, don’t get me wrong about human interaction, for things like produce, I would rather go to a farmer’s market or smaller grocery shop rather than large supermarkets…

    (*) The local barcode coding standard says something on the lines of, if the “error” is less than X amount, you get it for “free” or, if greater than X, a credit/discount will be given. If memory serves me right, that X amount is around $20. Next time you use the self-checkout, ask about this!

  14. I work very close to the Superstore on Calgary Trail, so for convenience sake, I go there for most of my dry goods, personal hygiene products, medications and cleaners. I have grown to really like their self check out – the bagging area is large enough to fit everything on, it’s not over sensitive, you can scan quickly and it rarely ever makes you wait for an associate to come fix an issue. I do tend to get impatient with people who take loaded shopping carts in there and then take 15 minutes to scan purchases that would take a cashier half the time… so I make a game with myself of seeing how fast I can scan through and pay for all my items. I don’t have any complaints other than the above noted comment about machines frequently being out of service.

    For produce, meat and other fresh produce I go to Sobeys Hawkstone in the west end on Lessard Road, I’ve found them to have some of the best selections in the city for foods you’d normally have to visit a specialty store for. This week they introduced self-checkouts, which I tried out tonight. While simmilar to the system at Superstore, it still had some glitches, including an oversensitivity to weight and taking too long to scan items through. I’ll give it a few more visits before I reserve any final judgement, so far I’m pleased to be offered a choice of cashier or self-checkout.

  15. If you haven’t noticed, the self checks at Save-On, Safeway, Sobeys, and Home Depot, all look similar because they ARE. They’re all manufactured by the same company, NCR. The models and software just vary, somewhat, from store to store. Walmart uses an IBM brand of self check and Superstore uses UScan.

  16. I know this in an old post. But I still want to put my two cents worth in!

    I love self service checkouts, and I do like the NCR machines mainly because of the speed and the fact that NCR have improved their machines in recent years. eg. The newest NCR machines don’t have coin slots. They have a mini toll basket design so you can throw all your coins in all at once. Which is great when I want to get rid of the $50 worth of loose change in my wallet!
    NCR machines also have the ability to use your own bags without assistance. The option just has to be enabled.

    What I LOATH about SSC is clueless people who have NFI, people with 27 000 items (Superstore) and people who spent 5+ minutes bagging their groceries AFTER they have completed the transaction. (Again. Superstore)

    I also hate the Uscan terminals, because they are slow, prone to constant equipment failure and they are really ugly to look at.

    It also appears that Fujitsu hasn’t spent any money on R&D for their Uscan product, which explains why the terminals are so crappy.

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