The Latest Grocery Chain To Ditch Self-Checkout Adds Theft And Other Issues To The Debate

Written by Evan Schuman
September 27th, 2011

In the ongoing battle of words over retail self-checkout with Kroger and Albertsons—with each side arguing to its customers that true customer love means rejecting/retaining self-checkout—the latest comes from a 75-year-old $1.5-billion regional grocery chain that was late to the game in beginning self-checkout and right in the middle of the rush to jettison it. But even though the chain certainly argued a customer service reason for the swift chain-wide exit, it also said that it couldn’t stomach the high theft rate.

The Big Y chain, with 61 stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts, announced this month that it would kill all of its self-checkout lanes. “In the battle of Service vs. Self Checkouts, service won,” the chain said in a short statement. In a conversation with a chain executive, though, the decision sounded a lot more complicated. To be blunt, it didn’t seem as if the chain had ever been all that fond of self-checkout, which it first deployed back in 2003.

“We were one of the last chains to get into the self-checkout game. We were really dragging our feet,” said Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s VP for corporate communications.

Beyond an anti-customer-service perception, D’Amour-Daley cited several concerns, including the struggles of fresh produce identification, coupon issues, theft, payment choices and compliance fears with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

The theft issues were both intentional concerns (true stealing) and unintentional concerns (customers who, for example, misidentified the type of orange they were purchasing and said it was a cheaper variety than it really was). But, D’Amour-Daley added, “more was intentional,” with some thieves knowing the best [busiest] times to get away with thefts.

This month also saw one of the world’s largest retailers, Tesco, get involved in the self-checkout drama, pledging to add self-checkout to its stores in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. Tesco’s started with self-checkout in 2002—a year earlier than Big Y—with its U.K. stores.

The difference in customer service perceptions is explained mostly by looking at the different geographies and specialties of the retailers involved, along with the nature of their customer demographics.


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