David R. Humble got the idea as he stood in a long grocery checkout line in South Florida in 1984. The customer in front of him was so frustrated by the clerk’s slowness that he grabbed his own items and started scanning. “Why can’t anyone check himself out of a store?” Dave thought as he returned to his job as vice president of product development for Sensormatic Electronics Corp. After convincing senior management that self-service at the point of sale was a sound idea, and tinkering with a number of prototypes, CheckRobot, Inc. was formed as a Sensormatic subsidiary with Humble as president. The rest, as they say, is history. In the intervening years, self-checkout has evolved from a simple idea into one of the hottest technological innovations in the retail industry.
What Is Self-Checkout?
Self-checkout systems provide the necessary hardware, software, and support that give retail store customers the freedom to complete their own point-of-sale (POS) transactions. After selecting their merchandise, the self-checkout process allows customers to scan the barcodes to update the store’s POS database, deactivate anti-theft tags if necessary, bag the items, pay for them with cash, debit, or credit cards, generate a receipt, and walk out the door without ever coming into contact with a clerk.
The process itself may seem simple, but several sophisticated technologies must be seamlessly integrated in order for the checkout to proceed quickly and accurately without any other human intervention. Of primary concern is the accuracy of all aspects of the POS transaction. After decades of use, barcode printing and scanning is highly accurate, relatively inexpensive to deploy, and “idiot proof.” The same can be said of the computer system interfacing between scanning equipment and the retail transaction processing software.
Several large hurdles had to be jumped in order for the American public to embrace the idea of doing all the work and still having to pay for the merchandise. The first was to condition customers to assume the burden of extra labor. Gasoline stations began offering self-service pumps in the late Sixties with the inducement of a discount in the price per gallon of fuel. After awhile, people became accustomed to do-it-yourself gas pumping, and now it is difficult to find a full-service station.
The second hurdle was figuring out how to handle the payments. Here, the growth of sophisticated vending machines and ATMs paved the way. Successful self-checkout relies upon an automated payment tendering method. Customers must be able to deposit cash and receive correct change, or swipe their credit or debit card and not worry whether an error will occur. Now, the appropriate technology exists to consummate transactions more accurately than with a clerk. Automatic cash handling machines rarely make mistakes counting out change.
The Importance of Point of Sale Security
Self-checkout systems require more security safeguards than manned lanes. Without them, thieves could simply load up and walk out of the store with impunity.
Most self-checkout systems have been designed to accommodate and enhance existing loss prevention methodologies, such as electronic article surveillance (EAS), closed-circuit television (CCTV) and POS exception-reporting software. EAS deactivation occurs as the items are scanned, and video surveillance and recording activities can be undertaken as if the lanes were manned. But these features may not be sufficient to deter would be shoplifters in a situation where they may not be observed closely by a sales associate.
Early in the development process, self-checkout manufacturers were concerned that the equipment should be able to somehow discriminate between every item, so that someone couldn’t scan a cheap item and place an expensive one in the bag. Developers came up with two possible solutions: weights and measurements. The idea was to measure or weigh every single stock-keeping unit (SKU), and compare the scanned item to the database to see whether or not it was “correct” within certain statistical limits.
CheckRobot’s early units had a large box covering a conveyor belt, not unlike the luggage scanning portals used by airport security personnel. Laser beams were strategically positioned inside the box to try to measure the outer dimensions of the scanned items. If a “fit” occurred, the belt continued to move. If the item’s size didn’t match the database, the belt stopped, reversed itself, and sent the item back to the customer for a rescan.
While measurement may have been a good idea in theory, in practice it simply slowed down transaction productivity and raised customers’ blood pressure, so the practice was not widely adopted.
The solution to this problem is a sophisticated weight-learning database software program that runs constantly in the background. “A consumer product’s weight is a stable attribute, particularly in the supermarket and drug industry,” said Dusty Lutz of NCR Corporation. “Weight-learning database software corroborates items quickly and transparently to the customer. It is designed to allow retailers to easily update the system with either new or discontinued items.”
As items are scanned and placed in the bag well of the system, an internal scale tracks additional weight and queries the database for corroboration. If no item is bagged, or if an item’s weight doesn’t match up to the database, the system prompts the customer to seek assistance from the attendant.
One interesting security feature is the software integration enabling the attendant to monitor every scan at every self-checkout station. Envision a screen splitter that is common to CCTV monitoring. Instead of video, the screen splits the transactions on each self-checkout unit. This allows the attendant to look first at the customer to see what is being scanned, then look on the screen to corroborate the point of sale information. This adds another measure of protection against barcode switching or non-scanning activities.
Supermarkets provided the laboratory for the original design and development of self-checkout. As a result, most of today’s features and functions tend to support the operational characteristics of big-box retail and front-end checkout. However, the evolution of retailing may see penetration of the systems in a variety of other retail formats.
This article was excerpted from “Self-Checkout Reaches Critical Mass.”