People have grown accustomed to pumping and paying for gasoline at self-service machines, and now they may have to get used to checking themselves out at other retail venues, as well.
Last year NCR Corp. started selling automated checkout aisles that let consumers scan, bag, and pay for retail purchases without any help from a cashier. NCR had sold 1,000 of the units, which cost $20,000 and up, until May, when Kmart Corp. ordered 5,000, which it plans to install by yearend in 1,300 of its U.S. stores.
The NCR Self-Checkout E-Series looks very much like a standard grocery store checkout aisle, only it has a tabletop scanner where some aisles would have a conveyor belt for groceries. The scanner is linked to a scale under the bagging area, so that after a consumer scans an item to be purchased and puts it in the shopping bag, the scale weighs the bag to make sure that the consumer has put in the correct item. The approximate weights of all items in the inventory are stored in the terminal's memory, so that someone buying ketchup, for example, does not try to sneak in a box of detergent.
"It will recognize a weight that does not match that which is in the database for ketchup," said Jennifer Nugent, NCR's marketing manager for self-checkout. "So it would throw up a security flag."
Once all the items have been bagged, the consumers have a choice of ways to pay, though if they choose checks, an employee has to get involved. There is no particular mechanism to prevent people from taking their goods without paying, but NCR says that the security features are sufficient to alert store employees if this happens, and the machine will not function for the next customer if a transaction is left incomplete.
Kmart has about 300 stores already using the equipment, with four to eight self-checkout aisles per store. A roving camera monitors the aisles to help keep customers honest, and, as a psychological deterrent to theft, shows consumers an image of themselves as they walk up to the unit.
"I don't necessarily believe that self-checkout is going to prompt people to steal more," Ms. Nugent said, "I actually think that it's the complete opposite." Because they think they are being monitored more closely, she said, "people will actually be more honest at the self-checkout lanes."
Susan Dennis, a spokeswoman for Kmart, of Troy, Mich., said that in the 300 stores using the equipment, an average of 25% of sales go through the self-checkout lines, though at certain stores it is as high as 40%.
Ms. Dennis said the retail chain installed the machines to allow more "flexible" staffing. For example, workers could be handling inventory or helping customers instead of manning cash registers. During the holiday season in particular, "If you're short, or if someone's calling in sick, certainly the self-checkout is going to help, because you're not going to lose sales because you didn't have your cash registers covered," she said.
NCR advertises that the Self-Checkout E-Series - and its companion, the C-Series, which works with or without a cashier - makes for shorter lines and faster checkout times.
"When you first install the lanes, certainly in an area where there's not a lot of self-service, consumers need to be educated," Ms. Nugent said. "As the system stays in that store longer and longer, consumers aren't going to need that hand-holding anymore."