Jewel-Osco getting rid of self-checkout lanes

Is it the end of the line for self-checkout? It is for some Jewel-Osco customers.

The Itasca-based grocer, which is under new ownership from an investment group led by Cerberus Capital Management, is in the process of removing self-checkout lanes from some of its local stores.

Stores that have already eliminated the self-checkout include Glen Ellyn, River Forest, Palatine, Libertyville, Schaumburg on Schaumburg Road, Arlington Heights on Vail Street as well as in South Suburban Frankfort and in Chicago on Ohio and State streets and Harlem and Foster avenues. Others will be done over the next six months to one year, said Jewel spokeswoman Allison Sperling.

Jewel-Osco, which also recently eliminated its Preferred Customer loyalty cards, plans to instead hire more cashiers and add shorter express lanes, said Sperling.

“We are creating an environment to better connect with our customers and give them more personalized service, one on one,” Sperling said. “We think that our shoppers will be happy with our improved service.”

The move is part of a growing trend nationwide among some large retailers that are returning to the human touch, despite the extra labor costs. Also, technology glitches, restrictions on purchasing liquor and other controlled products, and a higher rate of theft are contributing to the decline of self-checkout at retailers nationwide, said Jeff Weidauer, vice president of marketing and strategy for Vestcom, a marketing firm for retailers.

“We believe that in the next couple of years, self-checkout will be eliminated altogether,” said Weidauer.

In Jewel's case, loss prevention is one of the factors, but the key reason for this decision is customer service, Sperling said.

“We have set a higher bar for customer service in our stores this year, and we feel that letting a customer come in, shop and leave without any opportunity for that last interaction at the check stand isn't reflective of the culture we're establishing,” Sperling said.

Many grocers and other retailers started using self-checkout technology in the Chicago and suburban area roughly a decade ago, including Dominick's, Home Depot, Walmart and others.

Grand Rapids, Mich.,-based Meijer stores began using self-checkout lanes in 1998, and most of its stores have had self-checkout lanes for at least 10 years, said Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi.

Meijer said it plans to continue with self-checkout lanes, despite what competitors are doing. Meijer regularly updates the scanning technology and even added conveyor-belt lanes for the larger orders, said Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi.

“Many of our customers like the self-scan option and for those customer who prefer a staffed checkout lane, we still have most of our checkout lanes dedicated to staffed cashiers. It's really about offering choices for our customers,” Guglielmi said.

Good service is a strong point of difference in today's competitive grocery market, said Bill Bishop, industry analyst and chief architect of Barrington-based Brick Meets Click.

“Some people just want to get out quickly and, for many of them, self-service checkouts have become a good option. If they're taken away, that'll be poorer service from their point of view,” said Bishop. “Other people appreciate the help and sometimes even a conversation with employees. These customers will appreciate having more lanes open to keep the lines short.”

While the equipment helps to reduce labor costs, it can stress employees who are staffing four to six self-checkout lanes when problems or interruptions occur, experts said. Whenever alcohol is sold, an employee over age 21 still is required to scan it due to age limitations on the purchase. Also, if there is a technology glitch, a coupon isn't accepted or a code is wrong, then a cashier still has to help the customer, experts said.

Also, theft increased at self-checkout lanes and some stores tried random checks of customer orders after they completed their transactions, Weidauer said.

“The chance of catching someone randomly was rare and the chance of upsetting a good customer was high, because they'll feel like they were called out. There was just no good way to handle that,” Weidauer said.

Most of all, people enjoy talking with someone in the store. The self-checkout system just doesn't provide that connection, Weidauer said.

“They've lost that contact, which is part of the whole shopping experience. It almost was like shopping online,” said Weidauer said.

The Jewel-Osco in Schaumburg has already eliminated its self-checkout lanes and replaced them with express lanes where cashiers will personally help shoppers. COURTESY OF JEWEL-OSCO
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