SELF SERVICE IN THE RETAIL AND DINING ENVIRONMENTS
An opinion piece by Phil Reynolds
Revised 13 July 2022
Self service in retail and dining environments has, over the years, steadily increased. It continues to do so, and there are several kinds, each with variations. There are in fact four different environments to consider, each having its own requirements. As they do not directly compare, they need to be considered individually.
First, I will consider the self-selection shop environment, and the two ways self service can be done there. Next, the catalogue shop environment. Then, the fuel station environment, which also has two ways, and last of all, the dining environment.
You should note that I shop mainly in England and formerly also in France, and therefore most of my comments will relate to retailers operating in these countries.
Self-selection shops include supermarkets, DIY stores, furniture stores and some other types. In these stores you pick up the goods yourself and take them through a checkout. Occasionally there may be items you need to order and pay for, and then collect after the checkout, and self service may not work for these. For the other items, though, it will work. There are two ways to implement it.
In this method, usually in exchange for taking out a loyalty card (and sometimes completing an extra registration), you can be issued with a scanning handset, or run an app on your phone, and scan your shopping as you go around the store. You can pack your shopping bags as you go, putting aside any items that fail to scan. At the end of your shop, you go to a special till (though often you could go to an ordinary one as well), scan a special bar code and then pay for your goods, once any failed items have been scanned or otherwise dealt with.
For items priced by weight you need to weigh and label the items, then scan the labels. For loose items priced at so much each, the code to scan is often on the shelf near the item, or may be on a board just before the tills.
Only a few retailers have implemented this generally very good system. Waitrose (at most of their stores) and Tesco (at some of their large stores) in the UK, and Carrefour and Leclerc in France (at least) have, and Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Asda also have now, with more to follow. (Morrisons are taking their time getting the system implemented outside West Yorkshire at the time of writing.)
This system has the following advantages:
the handset or app displays your total (sometimes not including multibuy reductions) as you go
you can pack your bags as you go
checking out is usually quick and using a dedicated till
There are a few points on which this system can fall down:
sometimes, to release a handset, you need to have your loyalty card in a particular form – Waitrose issue cards with a magnetic stripe and bar code, and key fob cards with the bar code alone. The handset dispenser in use at some of their stores requires the magnetic stripe, but others use the bar code. (I think the old type may now all be gone.) Waitrose does, however, have an app that can be used given the bar code. It is notable they have at least one store (Twickenham) where you can use the app, but they don't have handsets.
handsets can sometimes fail – battery going flat, for example – and this can complicate matters
the handset dispenser can sometimes have faulty holsters that do not release handsets
trolleys may not always have a holster for the handset (but well done Carrefour on your current design!)
if you do not buy any goods having taken a handset, you need to take care to make sure your transaction is closed before you leave the store, or you may find your use of the service suspended – Waitrose in particular were a pain for this, barring me many times for “failing to pay £0” when I couldn't find any of the items I'd gone there for, especially when using the app. You can also be barred there if a technical issue prevents a rescan being done (even if, being aware of this, you ask Customer Service to prevent this happening before you leave the store).
the phone app often still advises you to pay if you close a transaction without goods
handsets and apps very often work in only one language – even if the till has more. You need to know enough of the relevant language to use the system
I have used the Waitrose, M&S, Sainsbury's, Asda and Carrefour systems so far. Sadly I cannot say that any of them is excellent, but they are mostly very good. Waitrose (rated only fair) fails because their mobile phone app restarts instead of closing when you select “Close” after shopping, and because of their over-zealous barring. In some stores the tills for this service are combined with those for the self-checkout method – as long as there are plenty, not a problem, though they did at one time have a clumsy bag tax question. To pay in cash you need to use a regular till. M&S is for card payment only. Carrefour fails because, on my last visit, they had removed the “end transaction” barcodes from the tills, so the supervisor had to bring the code to me. The tills for different methods of payment are different, so it helps to know where you're going. I have not yet discovered a phone app to use there. In Asda and Sainsbury's it's a simple enough app, but in Asda at least, there are often delays if you are selected for a rescan.
With this method you take your goods to a self-checkout, scan and pack them there and then pay. Many stores have this only for baskets of shopping, but in some Tesco, Asda and Morrisons stores I have seen some that can work with larger amounts of shopping.
Many stores use basically the same system – notably Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Boots and WHSmith. You can pay in cash or by card.
Tesco Express stores have self checkouts now too... they are good but a little confusing at first.
The Co-op's self-checkouts are a little less well laid out but similar. I have limited experience of those in Lidl but found them simple enough. Aldi recently introduced similar ones to Lidl (this is not much of a surprise, but will fuel the false impression that they are related).
The Waitrose self-checkouts are for card payment only. To pay in cash you need to go through the basket tills.
Wilko have now introduced an improved self-checkout, much more compact and intuitive than their previous effort. It remains card payment only but that is not a big problem.
Most of the self-checkouts make use of a bagging area. Unless you instruct the till that you do not wish to bag an item, it will expect the weight in the bagging area to rise accordingly and not fall until the goods are paid for. It is a good idea to make sure that anyone shopping with you knows this, to prevent bagging error delays – also beware of checkout staff blocking things up by taking bottles of spirits off the scale to remove the locks. The latest Waitrose combination self service tills do not use a bagging area.
I have used these tills in all the stores I mentioned and also B&Q, Ikea, M&S and Carrefour. They are good, if you take care to use them properly. The wait to use them is often quite low. One odd point – the wording of the question relating to the single-use bag tax is often confusing – asking how many bags, or how many new bags, you have used. A “bag for life” purchased does not count, nor does any bag you brought into the store with you. It applies solely to new regular bags being used for the first time. Morrisons avoid the question now by simply not supplying regular bags. Many others now have improved questions.
I rate the self-checkouts excellent in most stores. The exceptions: Co-op (poor layout), rated good, Asda (slow), rated fair, and both Wilko and Waitrose (no cash payment), rated good. Even Ikea and B&Q are excellent.
This applies to stores like, for example, Argos. In such a store you choose your goods from a screen, often a tablet fixed to a desk, pay and then collect. It is often also possible to order on your own device, before you go to the store.
I cannot fault these systems, as long as they keep good track of stock.
With this system, you call up an app on your phone or your dashboard terminal, select or otherwise indicate the pump to use and an amount limit, exit the car, fuel and go.
There are potential problems if you select the wrong pump, or if you forget to use the app and the normal authorisation happens. You can also be delayed if the app appears to fail to work but actually it did work, as you need to check in the shop. However, these are generally excellent.
Apps can sometimes “forget” you – worth checking you can log in, where you've got the time and information needed to sort it out, if you think you might use it. I have only ever used BP's system yet, though I do have the app for Shell as well. Unfortunately some banks seem to detect use of these apps as potential fraud far too readily – fortunately this problem has reduced recently.
With this system, you insert your payment card, authorise it for a preset amount, then dispense up to that value of fuel into your car's tank.
These are a very good idea, but I would recommend that pumps at such fuel stations not include any that support both “pay at pump” and “pay in shop” modes. This would make people forgetting which method they've used and mistakenly stealing fuel less likely.
I have used these systems mainly at Tesco, Asda and Carrefour fuel stations and would use them more if more were available. They are generally excellent. I did use one with a single pay terminal in Belgium once – and managed to find out how to get it to work in English.
In establishments where you order food over the counter, these systems work well. You can order your food, pay and then simply wait for your order to be ready and collect it. Some also now have apps and you can order at a table using them, and what you order will be brought to you.
These systems do fall down on a few points:
if you need a special order (omitting or replacing items due to, say, an intolerance), you cannot always do this on the terminal and will still need to have this made right at the counter
in a certain pub chain I know, whereas the app can quite happily tune the food menu to suit your intolerances, some of the drinks are not supported for order on the app. Due to their short term nature, it would be more difficult, but not impossible, to overcome this
I cannot grade the pub chain highly because of the shortcoming mentioned. I also cannot grade Harry Ramsden's at Welcome Break highly due to the first shortcoming. However, these systems do work well otherwise, and I have not encountered any serious problems with other outlets.
There are environments, often attached to supermarkets, where a system to allow self service ordering in the café would actually be helpful. Morrisons have now implemented this, but it can result in problems as presently implemented, where a portion is 2 slices and you only get 1, or when you order a speciality tea and then encounter staff who don't take much notice of the receipt you have. It is also possible to order at a table conflicting with someone else's, when it is busy. On the whole, it is good, though.
Self service systems can save you time, but if they are at all deficient they can be quite a problem. It would be good if more scan-as-you-go systems, and better dining environment systems, were around.