Self-checkout machines cause 'stage fright' in shoppers

Do you ever use the self-checkout at your local store? And when you do, are you one of those fumblers who has to get a cashier to help? Or are you the annoying guy right behind, tapping his foot and sighing loudly?

A new study has found the fear of looking stupid stops people from using self-service checkout machines -- but hiding in a crowd helps. And that could give stores some tips on how to handle self-checkout, which is becoming a very popular cost-cutting tool among retailers.
Researchers studied the patterns at a lane of self-checkout machines in a Kroger Co. (KR) grocery store in North Carolina, and interviewed the users afterward. They found that shoppers felt more comfortable ringing up their own purchases if they were alone or in a crowd. But if there was just one other person waiting in line behind them, they felt more pressured and less confident and were less likely to use the machine again or recommend it to others.

"It's almost like stage fright," said Michael Capella, assistant professor of marketing at the Villanova School of Business, one of the study's authors. The study, co-authored with professors Brian Kinard of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Jerry Kinard of Western Carolina University, was published in the journal Services Marketing Quarterly.

But surprisingly, the study found a small crowd of three of more other shoppers diluted the potential embarrassment and brought the shoppers' pressure and confidence ratings to the same level as when they were ringing up groceries by themselves. The study theorized that shoppers feel their mistakes using the machine won't be noticed if they're in a group of people, so they're less self-conscious hiding in a crowd.

Many retailers, from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) to your local supermarket, now offer self-checkout lanes. A recent study from London-based consultants Retail Banking Research estimated the number of self-checkout machines in the U.S. will grow to nearly 192,000 in 2011, more than tripling the 59,000 that were in use in 2007, when the recession started.

The self-checkout is a no-brainer for retailers: They need to cut costs to weather this recession, and one of the few places where they have some flexibility is in staffing. If you want to keep staff levels low, but have enough employees to deal with customer service and stock, then you have to take them off the cash registers -- but then you get long lines at checkout that turn off your customers. You can have one cashier staffing a register or one looking over a bank of four to six self-checkout machines.

But it won't help if shoppers don't use the machines. So the study recommends that stores place self-checkouts in low-traffic areas and away from any cringe-inducing products like condoms, which could amplify the shoppers' self-consciousness. Capella said the study also suggested advertising or in-store communications that promote the ease of using self-checkout would help.

"I don't have any doubt that they're going to become more prevalent," he said. "Face it, that's going to be a real benefit for (retailers), but none of this is going to benefit them if they can't get consumers to use them."
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