Self-checkout now widely available

When Joanna Mongiello of Altoona sees a self-service checkout available, that’s where she heads.

“I think they’re easy, and it’s faster than standing in line,” Mongiello said.

But not Coriena Pfahler of Altoona.

“They’re too complicated,” Pfahler said. “And they take longer than an actual cashier.”

In an era when more and more local businesses are making self-service checkout options available, polls have shown customers falling into one of three categories: one-third love self-service checkouts, one-third hate them and the remaining third just want the fastest line.

“I would be surprised if Altoona’s percentages are significantly different from those national averages,” Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said. “You’re probably very similar.”

Home Depot, recognized as a leader in the use of self-service checkouts, tried the option in 2002 and deployed it to almost 800 stores within a year, according to an April 2010 study by the Informational Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

The result, Holmes said, has been an improvement in customer relations.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, that we put in these units to get rid of cashiers, we didn’t,” Holmes said. “What we were looking for was greater efficiency, and that’s what we got. We were able to return some [cashiers] to the sales floor, where they can assist customers who are in the aisles.”

More recently, Home Depot updated the hardware and software of its self-service checkouts.

“It speeds everything up quite a bit,” Holmes said. “And the interface on the screen – we’ve made it much more intuitive, so it is much easier to use.”

At one time, it was common to see a customer standing at a self-service checkout counter waiting for an employee to help them because something didn’t go right. And, it wasn’t unusual to be in a store and hear an announcement about someone needing assistance at the self-service counter.

“I never use them because I don’t have enough time to learn how to do it,” John Didyk of Altoona said. “Get me a cashier and let me get going. I’m busy, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to do.”

Mongiello sees it differently. She said she can get through a self-service checkout and out the door while other shoppers are still waiting in line for a cashier. And apparently she’s not the only one.

In a 2012 survey for the NCR Corp., a leading producer of hardware and software in the self-service industry, 71 percent of the respondents described their self checkout experience as “quick and easy.”

The good old days

In its April 2010 study, the Informational Technology & Innovation Foundation acknowledged that the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a rapid growth in self-service, an option that’s been developing over time.

“Think about placing a call by dialing a telephone instead of using a telephone operator or pressing a button in an elevator instead of using an elevator operator,” the study suggested.

Some other options: Banking customers can choose to use a teller, an ATM machine and, more recently, online banking options.

The study identifies self-service gasoline stations as one of the most prevalent self-service technologies. At one time, an attendant pumped the gas, checked the oil, cleaned the windshield and took the driver’s payment.

That changed in the late 1970s when drivers were offered the option of pumping their own gas or having an attendant do it.

And it was followed by a pay-at-the-pump system introduced in 1986 in the United States by Mobil, giving consumers the option of swiping a credit or debit card to pay. While only 13 percent of the convenience stores selling gasoline offered that option in 1994, about 80 percent were using the technology in 2002, according to the History of Gasoline Retailing maintained by the National Association of Convenience and Petroleum Retailing.

New Jersey and Oregon remain exceptions to the rule, because in those states, laws prohibit customers from pumping their own gasoline. While the Federal Trade Commission says that translates into higher gasoline costs for consumers, supporters say the laws protect jobs and ensures safety.

Sheetz stores

While the Sheetz convenience store chain embraced pay-at-the-pump options and followed that with touch-screen kiosks to place food orders, it recently began testing self-serve checkout, with a unit now at the Meadows Intersection store.

“It’s another strategy we’re trying to serve our customers, for their convenience,” company spokeswoman Monica Jones said. “It’s for the guy who wants to scan his own item and be out the door.”

As for the possibly of theft in such haste, Jones said the store’s security measures should be effective.

“As always, we have cameras everywhere in the store, and there are cameras on the self-checkout station, too,” she said.

At this point, the self-service checkout remains a test, with the potential to allow employees to spend less time at the cash register.

“We’re really trying to focus on food and food service and make our employees more available to serve the customers on the floor or by preparing food items or coffee drinks,” Jones said. “If we can take some tasks out of their immediate job duties, then they could be in a better position to handle the food service and beverage needs of our customers.”

The Altoona Area Public Library

To the rear of the circulation desk at the Altoona Area Public Library, patrons have the option of using a device to check out their books. But most of them still head to the counter where the staff handles that duty.

“Not a lot of people use it,” library Executive Director Jennifer Knisely said. “Maybe it needs to be in a different place.”

Rick Opdyke, who works at the circulation desk, said some people try to touch the device’s screen and become frustrated when that doesn’t work.

It’s easy to use, Knisely said, as she scanned the bar code on her library card, then the bar code on a book she wanted to check out. But she doesn’t predict the option will surge in popularity.

“Part of the beauty of using the library and coming to the library is the social interaction,” she said. “This is where the readers can interact with the staff, talk about what they’re reading.”

Library patron Terry Smith of Newry said he understands why more companies are offering the option of self-service checkout, but he agrees with Knisely’s about the desire for interaction.

“I always like the personal aspect of dealing with a live person,” Smith said.

More change

on the way

Some retailers are embracing the next wave of technology.

Home Depot has introduced the option of using Paypal, the online money transfer system, to pay for items, Holmes said.

“You can go into the store, hands-free, plug in your numbers associated with the account, and move on,” Holmes said.

Some businesses are making use of newer technology that allows for the use of mobile point-of-sale devices that can read credit and debit cards from any location, then email or print a receipt, depending on the customer’s preference.

“Technology is a runaway train anymore,” Joy Eger of Altoona said.

As for the use of area self-service checkout stations, Eger said she has used them but has mixed feelings.

“I think they’re nice for the younger set,” she said. “But the elderly, they like the cashiers. I guess it a matter of what’s coming eventually, and it’s just a matter of transition.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.