Just coming out of the holiday shopping season, this is perhaps a fitting time of the year to revisit a favorite topic of mine – checkout lanes in stores and shopping centers. I have written on this in the past and I have a certain passion for the topic because it revolves around human behavior, psychology and usability.

There is a UX component to the checkout lane and shopping in general. I covered that in this article:

 User experience and customer service: What’s the difference?

But, I didn’t specifically comment on the flow of the checkout and user experience at the checkout lane. I did, however, underscore just how critical this process is to the user experience and will do so again here.

The checkout is the final step. I waited tables and tended bar for a number of years and noticed an anomaly. If something went wrong when you dropped the check, there was good chance you could kiss a nice tip goodbye. It’s because this is the final impression – the final stage – of the entire customer’s experience. If there is one place you can screw things up when serving in a restaurant, it was getting the check wrong or somehow botching the checkout process. What confounds me to no ends of the earth is why retail does not understand this concept. Some do. But most don’t. Below are 6 methods retail giants like Target, Walmart or Meijer could use to improve that final impression they make with consumers.

Lines and perception

I don’t mind waiting my turn and though I don’t necessarily enjoy waiting in line, I am willing to do so when I understand the store is doing everything they can to accommodate everyone. But, the biggest faux pas of superstores is having too many checkout registers and not enough cashiers. Most people would probably not be concerned during the holidays (or any other time) if they sauntered over to the checkout and there were 10 cashiers at all ten registers with lines behind each. This would give the customer the impression that the store is busy and they are doing everything they can to help customers move through the checkout process. But, what generally happens instead is this: You walk up to the register area after 30 minutes of shopping and there are 30 registers with only 5 of the lights on and cashiers working a measly 20 percent of the registers at the checkout area. This, I cannot understand. On the surface, it gives the impression the store could do more. After all, there are 25 more registers and surely they could open one or two of them. That is a matter of human perception. But, it also boggles the mind that a store would feel the need to install 30 checkout lanes and never use them all at one time – not even in the busiest season!

The simple fix is to cut the number of registers installed and use a greater percentage of them during busy times. This would give the impression (and shape perceptions) a greater effort is being employed to move people through the lines. Mariano’s – a local grocery store in the Greater Chicago area – has a line manager they use to shepherd you to the shortest line. Like an ambassador, this person makes you feel cared for and special. In addition, they use a good percentage of their registers, are comparable to superstore sizes and seem to get by well.

Forcing me to use the self-checkout

Right along the lines of the point above is when they have 20 checkout lanes, 2 clerks are working only 2 of those lanes and I am forced to go through the self-checkout. Self-checkout is great when I have just a few items. But, my primary complaint is that I am now forced to do the manual labor for the store that used to be free, the discount is not given or passed on to me and they simply aren’t very well designed spaces if you have bulky items. I also feel forced into the self-checkout when there aren’t enough cashiers to manage the lines. In fact, there usually aren’t enough cashiers to manage the self-checkout process.

So let me get this straight: You somehow convince me to scan my own groceries, bag them, put them back in my cart and I get nothing for this labor? I remember when a person would help you out with your groceries and it took two people to get you through a line. Now they somehow get us to do it and the price of groceries still goes up. Essentially, they’ve eliminated jobs and passed the labor profits on to their board of directors. Classic corporate American philosophy and a primary reason why I don’t shop at the superstores.

Did you find everything you were looking for?

If you do manage to make it through an “old school line” with a real human for a cashier, he or she might ask you if you found everything you were looking for. But why? Isn’t it a little late to ask me a question like that. I mean here I am, I waited in line for the past 15 minutes, I get all of my stuff on the conveyor with 3 people waiting behind me and they ask me if I found everything I was looking for? Just once I’d like to say, “no, I was looking for the Charmin 12-pack of TP instead of the 18-pack and I couldn’t find the no-scent Febreeze.” What would they do? Are they truly prepared to hold up the line while someone helps me find these things? It’s a useless question and if they are going to ask a question they don’t want the answer to, I would prefer it simply be “How are you today?”

Cancel for credit?

This is a short one and a trivial complaint. But, I wish they would begin to standardize the credit card charging interface. Do I cancel for credit or hit enter? Do I have to hand the card to the cashier and should I sign or is it under a certain amount so I don’t have to sign or stand there with the electronic pen at the ready? It seems like every store has their own process. Some stores seem to be able to figure it out. I swipe and I’m done. That’s the way it should be for all stores.

No signature on credit card

This, I think, is the largest snag in the entire process – the credit card signature game some businesses and cashiers like to play. There is no logic to it, but it goes like this: If my credit card isn’t signed on the back, I am asked for my identification. This is usually for a low-dollar purchase, which makes the crime against logic even more grievous. Let’s suppose I am a wallet thief and I swiped this card from someone. I have heard of dumb criminals, but is it likely a guy in a business suit or khakis (that’s me) would risk arrest for a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich at the corner store? Doubtful.

But the entire signature routine is a exercise in idiocy. If I sign the back of my credit card, I am not asked for ID. But how does that guarantee I am the owner of the card? I am no more legitimized by signing the back of that card and could well be a thief. But it get’s even worse. Many merchants don’t even require you to sign for purchases on a card under a certain amount. And even when they do, no one is comparing signatures. Moreover, you would need to be a handwriting expert to validate a signature anyway. This is another moronic routine at the checkout that only forces me to pull one more thing out of my wallet. I dare not pay cash for the last UX blunder I list below.

Receiving change

If I pay with a card, I am often asked if I would like the receipt with me or in the bag. No one ever asks that when you pay cash. They always give you the paper money, tucked in with the receipt and a handful of change on top of that. So I now have mixed change and a receipt in one hand and an open wallet in the other. I have separate out the receipt quickly, drop the coins in my pocket and arrange the dollars in order before tucking them in my wallet. This is usually done while shuffling along to the door so I don’t hold the next person in line up. The solution here would be to put the receipt in the bag without asking and hand the money back in a specific order: Change first allowing me to quickly drop it in my pocket or change purse for females, then paper currency in order from greatest to smallest bill. It’s still not ideal because you have to arrange the paper currency around existing currency in your wallet. But, it’s better than having to shuffle three different items around at once.

Providing a streamlined user experience at checkout is a tough order. But a few simple changes could go a long way. I don’t foresee most superstores adopting any of these techniques in the near future. And so I avoid them at all (or most) costs. It’s consumerism at its worse where I feel like little more than cattle herded through a mindless and poorly designed process.

Photo by zizzybaloobah Cash Register 99.99

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