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Service Design — How to Fail at the Checkout and Ruin Your User’s End Experience

by Sep 5, 2018UX Careers0 comments

Originally published on

I have had something of an obsession with service design in recent years — especially as it relates to shopping and the checkout process at nearly any store to include e-commerce. If there is a single area where good service design falters, it is often in the checkout process. This usually happens when the business places their needs above the customer’s needs — a point I elaborated on in a previous article I wrote on the principles of service design.

The checkout process especially fascinates me because it is one of the two or three most critical points in a shopping experience for a consumer. I discussed this concept in my previous article where I write of the peak-end rule along with the recency and primacy effect. Briefly, the Peak-end Rule states we remember the peak and the ending of an experience in greater detail. Additionally, the beginning of an experience can flavor everything that comes after it. This is called the Primacy Effect. The ending of the experience works on the Recency Effect where we are better able to remember the most recent portion of an experience. So, you have the beginning, the end and the peak of an experience to design for.

In this article I am mostly focused on the end of the experience because there is rarely a peak to a shopping experience and the beginning, while important, mostly refers to how you feel as you walk in the store (or enter a website). Is it dirty or poorly designed? Is it easy to navigate? Is someone standing there to give you a cart, greet you or give you a sample? I theorize these latter techniques do little to build a lasting impression in your memory and the beginning of a shopping experience is really more about the aesthetics of the store or website as you enter. Assuming you find a cart and find what you need in the store, it’s the end of the experience we remember most when shopping for groceries or goods of any sort.

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 giants do not understand this concept. Some do. But most don’t.

The checkout is the final step. There are generally 8 ways I see retail merchants like Target, Walmart or Meijer fail in service design as it relates to the end of the customer experience and the final impression they make with consumers.

The cash register “interview”

The checkout lane at almost any national retail or grocery chain has become an obstacle course of questions, surveys and actions I often must take to make a simple purchase. Sometimes I think marketers just sat around a table and said, “How can we make the checkout process more painful for a customer?” I am often asked multiple questions just to get through the payment process — everything from surveys to my phone number and zip code or if I want to give to a charity. It seems as though there is a marketer behind every register and every checkout process — someone who simply wants to make it more difficult for me to achieve my goals.

I don’t want to give my phone number, zip code or my blood type so they can send me marketing materials. I don’t want to answer fifty questions to purchase a beef stick and a soda. And I certainly don’t want call an online survey system and spend five minutes with a robot to tell a company about what a “great experience” I had purchasing my beef stick and soda. It’s a simple transaction. Beef stick. Soda. Maybe a few groceries or something. Ring it up and get me out of here. How much advertisement must I be bombarded with at the checkout lane?

Marketers have figured out extra ways to get into your pockets for years. They don’t necessarily care about giving you a good experience or making your checkout process better. They only care about making the company more money at any expense. Best Buy is infamous for this sort of thing. They want to sell me an extended warranty on everything right down to a $10 CD. I don’t think they are doing this anymore, but they used to try and sell you magazine subscriptions at the end of the checkout process. Who in the world thought that was a good idea? They are using the wrong moment for a sale. Good sales prey on buyers when they have a moment of need — like those people selling $1 bottled waters on a hot day in the city park. A buyer has a point-of-need and if you can meet it, the buyer doesn’t feel as exploited.

Another primary problem with the checkout discourse above is the concept of saying “no.” People don’t like to say no. It feels better in our culture to say yes. I certainly don’t like to say no when asked if I would like to donate a dollar to the Poor Orphan Shelter Charity. Saying no to this gives people a negative feeling. It adds a negative connotation to the sale process and that is not what you want a customer to feel at the point of sale — the end of their experience with your organization.

None of this is the cashier’s or even the manager’s fault. Someone, somewhere, has mandated these questions be asked and someone probably gets a bonus based on how many yes answers they can garner.

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. This is called the labor illusion — where customers are more tolerant of a wait when they “can see work being done on their behalf.”

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 ten cashiers at all ten registers with lines behind each. This would give the customer the illusion 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 you walk up to the checkout area after finding everything you need and there are thirty registers with only five in service. This, I cannot understand. On the surface, it gives the impression the store could do more. After all, there are twenty-five more registers and surely they could open one or two more of them. It boggles the mind that a store would feel the need to install thirty checkout lanes and never use them all at one time. This happens even during the holiday season — the busiest season for merchants.

This is largely about human perception. 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.

Forcing me to use the self-checkout

Related to the point above, the self-checkout is another problem where stores have placed their needs (decrease labor costs) above the consumer’s need (a better end experience). Self-checkout is great when you have just a few items, are in a rush and there are no lines. But, the primary problem is you are now forced to do the manual labor for the store that used to be free, the discount is not given or passed on to you. Additionally, these 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 even enough cashiers to manage the self-checkout process.

The crux of it is that I scan my own groceries, bag them, put them back in my cart and I get nothing for the labor. I remember when a person would help you out with your groceries and it took two people to get you through a line — the cashier and bag person. Now they somehow get us to do all of this 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 rarely 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 a question like that. I mean here I am, I waited in line for the past fifteen minutes, I get all of my stuff on the conveyor belt with three 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? They have picked the wrong time (wrong point of need) in the process to ask me this question because they did not blueprint or map out their service design.

Credit card foibles

Paying with a credit card is easier than ever today. But, there is room for improvement. The one problem with credit card transactions and payment options is they often interrupt the customer’s flow.

First, vendors should begin to standardize the credit card charging interfaces. Do you cancel for credit or hit enter? Do you have to hand the card to the cashier and should you sign or is it under a certain amount so you 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. You swipe and you are done. That’s the way it should be for all stores.

If your credit card isn’t signed on the back, you are often asked for your identification. This is a crime against logic. It usually occurs when you have a low-dollar purchase, which makes the crime against logic even more grievous. Let’s suppose I am a wallet thief and I stole 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 charged to a stolen credit card at the corner store?

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 if I am not asked for id, 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 seems to be a policy put in place with very little thought behind it.

Pushing your store credit card or “super saver” card

I went to get some golf shirts at Kohl’s one day. I don’t particularly relish shopping, but don’t hate it either. However, one characteristic of my shopping habits are that when I am done, I am ready to go. I don’t want to stand around and chit-chat with a cashier or spend any more time in line than I have to. On this particular day, the gentleman at the register asked if I would be putting this purchase on my Kohl’s charge. I stated I would be paying cash. I was then asked if I had a Kohl’s charge and replied no. I was then asked “why not?” The gentleman then went on (at length) to explain to me the savings and benefits of having a Kohl’s charge card. I declined several times before being able to complete my sale.

This situation and similar situations like it are particularly frustrating to me for a couple of reasons. First, I would appreciate a business that rewards me in savings regardless of whether I use a store charge or their supersaver card. Second, none of these pitches for charge cards are in the customer’s best interest. They are purely in the interest of the business. Marketers know I am more willing to part with money I have not yet earned than I am cash that I have earned sitting in my account. This is called hyperbolic discounting and is a common concept in psychology. It essentially states we have a preference for immediate over delayed gratification. So, I will be more willing to purchase items with a store charge than cash and the 15–20% coupons they send out regularly will reinforce that tendency. It all seems so great until the bill arrives at the end of the month. In other words, you don’t really “cash in on savings” with these cards since they encourage more spending — spending you don’t really worry about until another day.

This process also allows the company to gather more data on you. They can now hone in on your shopping habits, get all of your personal information and use this to market more goods to you. I would also assume their is some business model in place so a store like Kohl’s generates profits on any interest associated with store charges on their card.

The super saver card is especially irksome. This is most often seen in grocery stores where they will only give you the sale price when you use some sort of savings card. Once again, I would love to be rewarded with savings for just choosing a store rather than being rewarded for filling out their database with my personal shopping habits so they can mine “deep data” on their customers. I have deliberately begun avoiding stores that attempt to bribe me with savings for the exchange of my personal information.

The biggest offender: Ancillary products

One of marketers’ brilliant ideas is to try and sell you more (or offer you some other product) at the point of purchase when it isn’t always in your best interest. This is sometimes referred to as an “ancillary product” by marketers. Here’s what Beth Godlin of Fusion has to say about these types of sales:

“Whether they’re [customers] buying plane tickets, renting a car, or booking a hotel — there are more than likely other add-ons available to help improve their entire order. Every moment counts in sales. What better place to close a deal than when a customer is already in the process of making a purchase? Giving your customers the option to buy ancillary products that complement their purchase is not only a good business practice that will drive sales, but it also provides another layer of customer service.”

Godlin is referring to online sales, primarily. I would agree offering ancillary products can be useful if done in the interest of building a better customer experience. But it usually is not. And it is rarely done well. It is most often done for the purposes Godlin notes above — to “drive sales.” That’s what Godlin and people like her get paid to do — drive sales. They are not user experience professionals and their motivations are highly questionable. It is clear from reading Godlin’s article it is written from a sales perspective and not the user’s perspective.

Ancillary products are often lumped it at the end of a sale and very often are not pertinent to the sale at hand (thus violating the very definition of ancillary). Redbox likes to do this to me about once a month during the checkout process when they ask if I would like to upgrade to Blue Ray instead of DVD. I don’t own a Blue Ray. So the question is not only annoying to me as a user, but also shows me someone in marketing who knows nothing about me decided it would be a good idea to have me manage an extra interface control on the off chance Redbox could make an extra quarter or two. Another example is the extended warranty they often push. I mention this above when writing of Best Buy.

I tend to despise ancillary products and have to largely disagree with Godlin’s article. They are generally a poor idea, sales-driven and interrupt the user’s flow. When the user clicks checkout or walks over to the register, they have a goal in mind. They are done shopping and their goal is now to complete a purchase for the item they shopped for. This is not the time to try and sell them something else or place any obstacles between them and their goal. That merely interrupts their flow and taints the user experience. When you attempt to market to a user at checkout, you not only insert an obstacle in the path of the user’s goals, you also divert their goals to your goals.

Good service design is important for the overall user experience. Yet, it is even more important at the end of an experience (or exposure to a brand) due to the Peak-End Rule and Recency Effect. Placing the business needs before the user’s needs, breaking the user’s flow and not addressing a user’s need at the point of their need are primary culprits in designing a poor experience.

A business or service can have a perfect design throughout the entire experience and still fail through a lack of consideration or design at the end of the experience. Blueprint the service, map the user’s experience and user’s journey to discover where your design or service breaks. Beyond that, simply taking the points above into consideration while designing a service would be a good start to positive end.


Featured photo by Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash