The self-checkout (SCO) market is positioned for strong growth in the next few years, and the timing could not be better. Today's SCO technology is significantly improved over previous generations. Instead of adapting pre-existing or off-the-shelf components for SCO devices — including coin and note handlers, kiosk style printers and displays — SCO systems are now re-engineered or specifically manufactured for SCO offering improvements in functionality, form factor, costs and reliability.
SCO is a proven solution for increasing positive customer service metrics by reducing queues at checkout, trimming labor costs and delivering a strong ROI that pays for the technology in 12-18 months. There are a variety of improvements that are driving the adoption of SCO including:
1. Customer acceptance through better ergonomic hardware design and software user interfaces.
Raising tendering devices above the plane of the scanner and using ATM-style LEDs to help customers find the devices faster help shave seconds off transactions and improve customer satisfaction.
2. System reliability
Improvements and, in some cases, new technologies have been developed to reduce failure rates and accommodate operating practices in the retail environments that some of the older "banking" technologies were never designed to handle.
3. Cashier interventions
Enhancements to weight security databases, algorithms and cashier user interfaces are helping to improve the ability of SCO systems to address cashier operator and customer user errors, and, ultimately, to reduce the number of weight security database issues. SCO systems learn the weight of items as they are encountered at SCO — most weights are not pre-populated in databases — and incorrect actions by the cashiers and customers can cause these databases to become corrupted. SCO vendors have made changes that help dynamically adjust weight learning databases to reduce errors.
4. Easier to train and use
Learning a new SCO system on top of POS can be challenging for an entry level or even veteran cashier. Embedded training modules and help screens are becoming more common in SCO applications. The next step in making training even easier is embedded variations showing the differences between POS and SCO transactions. Then, training for both POS and SCO needs to be done only once — saving time, money and confusion.
5. Integration to POS
SCO solution providers have long understood that retailers must be able to control their SCO integration with POS in order to prevent a chasm of integration woes. Hardware is becoming a commodity and there have been improvements in developing SCO software that can run on any vendor's hardware. By un-tethering SCO software integration from POS, it reduces the risk of shipwrecking a critical POS release.
6. Coin and note recycling
Since 2009, several of the SCO solution providers have been bringing to market their versions of coin and note recyclers. It is important to note that these technologies are not new, only that they are new to retail in the U.S. Many of the solutions developed overseas have proven to be reliable in very tough retail environments. However, adoption in the U.S. has been slow because of the cost, additional high value and volume note capacity requirements for "cash back" functionality. Additionally, the existence of the $1 note which is dispensed far more than input by consumers makes recycling of $1 bills less practical. Outside the U.S. where $1 and $2 coins replace notes and cash back functionality is less common, note recycling is much more attractive and has a superior ROI.
7. Express credit and ID verification
New optical imaging technology integrated into scan guns, flat bed and bioptic scanners can speed up the process and security of processing express credit — both private label and co-branded credit card accounts. It is also used to verify ID for certain tendering requirements, age-restricted products or even CRM loyalty card applications. Payment Card Industry (PCI) requirements are met because the data is not handled or held in the retailer's POS. This functionality dramatically speeds up the express credit and loyalty program sign-up processes by enabling the customer to sign up in the SCO lane or kiosk with no forms to fill out or redirection to a service desk.
8. Computer visioning solutions
Working in conjunction with computer visioning solutions, SCO systems can rely less on item weight security and cashier interventions. Borrowing from the manufacturing and logistics industries, computer vision (cameras and processors) is being introduced into the retail checkout environment to help improve accuracy and speed up transactions.
9. Mobile technology integration
Hand held devices, tablet and slate computers are allowing retailers to eliminate cashier attendant stations. In addition to SCO, these same devices can also be used elsewhere in the store for other application including inventory and task management.
10. Advanced monitoring and diagnostics
Significant improvements have been made to help retailers monitor and diagnose issues with their SCO systems. Compared to any other technology used in retail today, self-checkout is far more complex with many components, moving parts, firmware and controlling software. Many SCO solution providers have now developed comprehensive monitoring and management solutions that can detect issues and alert the store, notify remote help desks or if needed, automatically dispatch service technicians to the store before the self checkout system fails. Some solutions today can even change the operation of SCO so that the systems can continue to operate in a reduced capacity (e.g. credit/debit only) until a problem with the cash devices is resolved. Self-diagnostics and automated recovery software are also being deployed to return SCO systems to normal operation without any support assistance. These new capabilities mean that SCO systems are likely to have far less down time, store personnel and customer service impact than earlier solutions in the marketplace.
Bruce Kopp is senior vice president of retail sales, Fujitsu America. (Photo by pin add.)