Commentary: Why do we need help from supermarket staff at self-service checkouts?

Commentary: Why do we need help from supermarket staff at self-service checkouts?

The introduction of technology to help raise productivity is to be applauded, but Channel NewsAsia's David Bottomley suggests new hardware should not be seen as a cure-all.

SINGAPORE: I have a love/hate relationship with supermarket self-service checkouts.

On the positive side, the queues are generally shorter for the DIY option. And avoiding the manned checkouts means I won’t be asked for what seems like the 10,000th time whether I have a PAssion Card (for the record, I don’t. But I would like to think that if I did, I could remember that fact without having to be prompted).

On the downside, though, I can rarely complete the checkout process without multiple interventions by an assistant. This undermines the main point of having the self-service option, which is to raise productivity and help supermarkets function with fewer staff members.

For instance, if I need a lemon, a supervisor has to manually key in a price code. The reason seems to be that lemons are sold by number rather than by weight, and the self-service pricing scales at my preferred supermarket apparently do not allow for any other measuring option apart from the latter.

Also, even though my local supermarket has barcodes on its bags of garlic, for some reason the scanner can’t read them. That is another purchase that needs manual intervention.

I also like to score a bargain by buying fresh meat that has been reduced in price because it is near the end of its shelf life. Again, I can’t scan these items myself because the reductions are usually handwritten on a sticker, so I need to find a member of staff to key in the discount.

On an individual basis, this is no more than an irritant that can be resolved reasonably quickly. Usually there is a member of staff loitering around the self-service checkouts, ready to intervene when someone needs help (and my observations suggest that problems occur often - not just with me).

However, if such glitches and problems are multiplied across all the supermarkets in Singapore, it adds up to a significant manpower cost to solve them. It also means that the full potential of self-service checkouts, no doubt installed at great expense, is not being fully realised. In my case, if I have a basket with plenty of non-scannable items, I won't even bother trying to use the self-service checkout and will clog up the manned option instead.

The changes in mindset needed to make a breakthrough in raising productivity have been discussed elsewhere on, using the example of petrol stations to suggest that taking the first step to deploy technology is an essential part of the process.

But it goes even deeper than that.

For many hundreds of millions of dollars have already been invested in technology and equipment that can help raise productivity. However, if the supermarket experience is anything to go by, some of that investment may not be delivering the best bang for its buck - and that is something that needs to be addressed.


While it is encouraging that many companies and organisations have aimed to raise productivity through technology, it is frustrating that doing so is perhaps sometimes seen as the end point of the process, with the hope being that buying new machines and equipment will somehow deliver a productivity magic bullet.

That is unlikely to ever be the case. The way technology is used needs to be constantly monitored, improvements to processes need to be made and equipment has to be updated - because raising productivity should always be a work in progress.

Which is why supermarket self-service checkouts here have been a disappointment. While some are better than others in terms of avoiding the need to get help from staff, there is some way to go before they are truly self-service.

From this customer’s perspective, it would seem to be a fairly easy fix to add a button to the self-service scales so that people can get a price barcode for items that are sold by quantity rather than weight, such as lemons. Similarly, why doesn’t the meat department at my local supermarket reprice discounted items with new barcodes rather than go through the laborious process of writing new prices by hand which then need to be manually entered by another member of staff?

I keep my fingers crossed that I will eventually be able to approach a self-service checkout full of confidence that I can complete my purchases with no assistance from staff, who can focus on being much more productive elsewhere in the store.

Being able to do so will be another small step on Singapore’s road to a more productive future.

David Bottomley is Supervising Editor for Digital News at Channel NewsAsia.

Source: CNA/db