LAS VEGAS — Self-checkout has grown across the convenience channel as customers demand easier ways to buy the items they need, and retailers grapple with labor issues.
The option can make for a more efficient convenience store experience for both shoppers and employees, but it is not without its detractors — notably, those critics who claim it is really about reducing headcount and saving money, not saving time.
During a "Self-Checkout Strategies" session at the 2022 NACS Show, Josh Birdwell, vice president of guest/retail technology at Pilot Co., explained that self-checkout is not as simple as cutting labor. Rather, it is about redeploying labor. "We can move people away from the counter to other areas of the store," he pointed out.
At Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot, implementing self-checkout is part of the company's $1 billion New Horizons initiative. The travel center operator kicked off the initiative to overhaul its network of more than 750 locations earlier this year. Currently, the company has self-checkout at 90 locations, and an average of 35 percent of transactions at those locations are made via self-checkout.
For Meyer Oil Co., which operates 23 c-stores and truck stops under the Mach1 banner in Illinois and Indiana, self-checkout is about transforming the customer experience, noted CEO Alan Meyer. The retailer recently went live with self-checkout at its eighth store, and it is currently remodeling older stores to include the system.
Key to implementing a successful self-checkout strategy is getting buy-in from all levels of the company, especially store employees, according to Meyer. At Mach1 locations, the company offers monetary incentives to employees for encouraging customers to use self-checkout.
The company also reinforces the benefits of self-checkout to its employees: self-checkout smooths the rush and leads to a less stressful situation for store clerks, the chief executive added.
Customer awareness is another crucial piece of offering self-checkout, according to Pilot's Birdwell. At the chain's travel centers, self-checkout is "front and center, so customers do not have to look for it," he said.
Whether a shopper chooses self-checkout or traditional checkout, the customer experience needs to be consistent. This means allowing customers to purchase the same products via either option.
For example, customers at Pilot's travel centers can prepay for fuel, as well as buy items from inside the store, through self-checkout. "We are a fuel retailer, and we want to make sure it is just as good an experience as with a traditional checkout," Birdwell said.
Self-checkout needs to accept all products — including age-restricted items — and all payment options, Meyer echoed. Mach1 stores tried a credit-only option, but the unit with the cash restriction was not used as much as the other self-checkout units.
The rollout of self-checkout will have its bumps, he cautioned. "It is a change on the store side and a change on the customer side. Pushback is part of the process," Meyer said.
However, for convenience retailers that are currently dabbling in self-checkout, Birdwell encouraged them to go all-in. "It has to be intentional and effective," he said.
The 2022 NACS Show took place at the Las Vegas Convention Center from Oct. 1-4. This year's event featured thousands of new products and technology solutions across 425,000 square feet of expo space, 250-plus new exhibitors, and more than 45 education sessions.