The Home Depot Self-Checkout Machine That Wouldn’t Take “No” For An Answer

Written by Evan Schuman
May 9th, 2008

Trying to collect some innocuous-sounding information from self-checkout customers, a self-checkout system at a Maryland Home Depot instead accidentally got itself embroiled in a privacy controversy.

The story began on May 8 when a woman visited a Baltimore Home Depot to buy a few odds and ends, including plants, pots and tile sealer.

According to what she told the popular consumer advocacy blog The Consumerist, "I went to the self check-out line because of the speed and scanned my items. Before I could indicate I was paying by cash, the machine wanted me to enter a zip code. I entered 11111 because it’s really none of their business. The next screen wanted me to key in if my items were for home or business use. I had no ability to bypass this screen even though I did not want to answer this question." She soon left the store without her purchases rather than answer the question.

Home Depot officials have confirmed that the incident apparently happened, but they painted the entire incident as a computer glitch.

The glitch seemed to be that such surveys are only supposed to happen during non-busy times of the year and they are explicitly not supposed to happen during the hectic spring months. (Somehow, I don’t think the woman’s complaint would have been any different had this been October, but let’s not go there.)

"Once a year in the fall, we ask customers if they’d like to provide their zip code in the checkout. We did learn that the function was activated early in some [machines]. We turned that off because spring is our busy season," said Home Depot spokesperson Ron DeFeo.

As for the core concern about customers having to answer these questions to pay for their purchases, DeFeo said the systems have opt-out options and that the customer might not have seen it.

Even if there had been an opt-out option, it seems unwise to put a survey (even a two-question survey) in front of the purchase process. Would a retailer ever have cashiers asking such questions before scanning through a customer’s purchases?


5 Comments | Read The Home Depot Self-Checkout Machine That Wouldn’t Take “No” For An Answer

  1. JRMeans Says:

    In the article, you commented, “Even if there had been an opt-out option, it seems unwise to put a survey (even a two-question survey) in front of the purchase process. Would a retailer ever have cashiers asking such questions before scanning through a customer’s purchases? ” My experience has been, retailers frequently have cashiers ask questions before they will initiate the scanning process. I’ve had several retailers ask for my phone number or zip code before the cashier can scan the first item. I will provide my zip code but I refuse to give my phone number. I will usually ask why they need the phone number and continue to refuse to provide it. Upon refusal of phone number, some stores will move on, others become insistent. When they become insistent, I’ll provide my area code and then 555-1212. Depending on the experience of the cashier, some will realize it’s the long number for information and become annoyed. If they continue to be insistent, I randomly make up a phone number. I try to avoid those stores in the future.

    NOTE: While I am an IBM employee, this comment is my own personal experience and should not be mistaken for the opinion of IBM.

  2. Lawrence Dvorchik Says:

    I could not agree with you more. At many retail establishments cashiers frequently ask you for a zip code and/or telephone number before they begin the transaction, so they can later segment people and make customized offerings.

    Retailers routinely ask for this information – it just now is making it to all their touchpoints.

  3. Pat Dooley Says:

    I agree. Years ago Radio Shack use to ask for this stuff. I have not entered a store since. Today’s retailers are awash with invasion of privacy.

  4. John Roberts Says:

    Putting a survey on a self checkout system slows down the transaction. That’s an anti-service in my opinion. Even if they only do it off peak hours, it’s not an excuse to impact customers simply because of when they choose to shop. I’ve also found several security issues with their system including putting an item on the scale prior to pressing start or starting of scanning. The item will not be detected and the cashiers misses it completely because no alarm is raised. I tried to tell them it this was happening, but they ignored me. Guess it’s a free item for those that have figured it out.

  5. Ruth Says:

    I also find it an invasion of privacy when companies ask for so much information when I am only trying to purchase a few things.

    There are, however, legitimate companies who will ask for zip codes without the intent of adding you to their mailing lists and such. For example, I know for a fact that Nordstrom (mainly Nordstrom Racks, because at the regular Nordstrom store they like to have a customer/sales person relation so you can have the best customer service).. but back on topic, at the Rack the employees will ask for a zip code specifically for demographic reasons. In this sense I think it is a pretty smart tactic for the marketing team because it is a great way to find out where each of their customers are coming from in order to best support their needs. They will use their data in helping them figure out where they will be building their next Nordstrom by analyzing the data presented to them simply by their zip code.

    There are other companies who use zip codes for mailing list purposes and honestly I think that if someone wanted to be in a mailing list then they would request to be on it and sign up.


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