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IKEA checks out of self-service

IKEA stores, by design, are a destination shopping experience. The Swedish-based retail stores draw in customers with modern home furnishings at an affordable price, while their massive store spaces and winding floor plans often keep shoppers inside for an hour or more.

Spending that much time picking out a book case is one thing. Waiting another 20 minutes to pay for it is another. And after a rash of complaints from customers who described just that kind of repeated delay, IKEA stores in the United States are yanking the self-service checkout systems that were causing the back-ups.

While most IKEA stores house a sprawl of checkout lanes, both self and cashier operated, typically the cashier lanes were opened only on peak shopping days. That meant that customers were funneled into a smaller group of self-checkout lanes that became clogged with shoppers trying to operate the system and manage their purchases.

IKEA did not return calls to be interviewed for this story, but company spokesperson Joseph Roth told The Tampa Tribune that the self-checkout system "wasn't as efficient as we originally hoped."

Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research Associates, an international consulting firm devoted to kiosks, personally experienced the frustration with IKEA’s self-checkout and quipped, "What took them so long?"

Mendelsohn described a typical shopping experience when the only option for checkout was the self-service kiosks. Roughly half of the shoppers hopped from lane to lane in attempt to shorten their wait times. Once able to use the self-checkout, users found the directions to be unclear and the scanner uncooperative.

"There was no explanation on how to use them," said Mendelsohn, who has tested kiosks worldwide. "I was aiming the scan gun at the bar codes and it just wasn’t working."

Whether IKEA’s self-checkout kiosks were difficult to use as a result of user-error, company-error or manufacturer design-error was a topic of consideration for Mendelsohn, who said she felt the kiosks lacked proper instructions for such a touchy system.

Mendelsohn explained that while checking out at IKEA, "an employee came by and said I needed to hold the scanner about six inches from the barcode. I asked her, 'How was I supposed to know that? There is nothing on the screen to indicate that this is how the thing works.' She shot me an angry look and walked away."

Mendelsohn said she went back to her office and tweeted, "Beware if you use these kiosks, they are very difficult to use."

Soon, she received a response to the tweet from NCR, the manufacturer of the self-checkout units. The individual said the units were designed to include a second screen, which would show demos to shoppers on how to operate the scanners, but that for whatever reason, IKEA decided not to include them in the deployments.

NCR declined to discuss the IKEA kiosks with KioskMarketplace, but pointed to a new study it had commissioned from an outside research firm. Its results show that shoppers continue to like self-checkout and see it as a customer service differentiator, with 70 percent of self-checkout shoppers wanting to see more of it in mass merchants.

"When self-checkout is done well, customers love it," said Sheridan Orr of consulting firm Interrobang Agency. "However, when it is clunky and confusing, the customer is left to think, 'I have to work this hard to give you my money?'"

Customers should feel that they are getting value from self-service—saving time, money or convenience, Orr said. This convenience may mean that the customer scans the items while a willing associate helps them get their new desk to the car. If retailers only look at self-checkout as a way to remove headcount, they are doomed to fail, she said.

"Part of the IKEA brand is quirkiness," said Orr, "but they have to examine the impact that has on their customers."

Photo provided by TAJIKBOY.

Read more about customer experience.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Ken Lonyai
    The IKEA example doesn't prove or disprove the value of self-checkout, but it does illustrate how going through the motions because something sounds like a good plan, will most likely fail. While not really a kiosk, it's another warning shot to the industry that serious pain is coming for those that don't understand today's customers.

    The NCR study is meaningless: I can't imagine that in the history of corporate funded studies, there is even one that has an outcome that's unfavorable to the party that paid for it.
  • Tavis Schriefer
    Having only self checkout can present an issue for various reasons, one of which is customers unfamiliar with the usage of such machines. I personally love self-checkout and choose it 9 out of 10 times when available at grocery, hardware, etc.
  • Andrew Kopatz
    Well, I have a different IKEA experience here in Europe. There are several self service lanes in their store and a customer service person helping if people have any kind of problems with the handling. They also limit the amount of pieces to 15 for the self service check out. Since the people get support at the self service check-out it is well accepted and I havent heard any complains about the concept at all. So it seems to me that there are some differences in the way the self-service check out concept is implemented. But they make a significant difference in the customer experience.
  • Kevin Swalwell
    I am curious how the US installation compares to Canada. Personal experience in Canada has yielded the following very consistent observations:
    1. Bar code design, size and placement as a standard is very poor. Employees will get used to the product deviations and machinations required to get a good scan on certain products. The general public will never get it and spend more time on the checkout process. I laugh when I use self-checkout. I usually end up helping other customers get successful scans.

    2. Back to above and training. With Ikea and the great number of bulky items that people buy there really is no understanding on the part of the consumer as to how to efficiently scan all the product they have in shopping carts and on the trolleys. Face it, they just don't care either! So call the measurable TTC (Time To Checkout). Ikea wants a benchmark to flow people through and my experience has been that customers there have pretty well had enough of a 2 hour shopping trip, meatball lunch, kids, not finding everything they were looking for and by the time they get to the checkout they are pretty well done. As much as they would like to make it go away really quickly, it often just doesn't happen. Then they can't get something to scan. Oh no, the Ikea staff intervention happens. No wait, it doesn't since the staff member assigned to the pod of 4 checkouts is busy helping someone else get something to scan.

    Personally I like using the self-checkout as I get how to use it and just love telling the staff that seem so annoyed with people's inability to 'get it right' that I 'get it' and I really don't need them breathing over my shoulder.

    3. In Canada, the groups of 4 checkouts get terribly congested when there are combinations of carts and multiple trolleys with big flat pack boxes. It is just plain messy and painful watching groups of people (often more than one standing around around each checkout helping and/or trying to help and/or talking about everything social other than getting the job done and getting to the Ikea Food Service area to get a cheap hot dog and froyo cone.

    4. I love NCR coming to their own defense. Butt covering, oh sorry, I mean, Social Media is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

    Finally. I love Ikea. Don't get me wrong. In fact, I would like them to contact me so I can work with them to improve their operations. :)
  • Elliot Gluskin
    I really don't think the self checkouts are totally to blame. I've used them at supermarkets and other retailers that offer them. While the complexity of the kiosks used by Ikea may be an issue, the biggest issue is having enough manned checkouts available.

    This past Friday afternoon around 12:30pm I was shopping the Ikea in South Philadelphia and they only had three checkouts working and there were easily 100-125 people waiting in line. I timed my wait and it was 35 minutes long!

    In fact, one woman walked up to an employee trying to manage the line and demanded that they find some more employees to manage the lines because waiting for 40 minutes to pay was totally unacceptable. The employee made some type of excuse and walked away.

    This will be a case study of what not to do on a weekend (I'd consider that a peak shopping day, don't you think?). Ikea may be quirky but their customer service never should.
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