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Self-checkout Counters_ A misunderstood option

Consumers are constantly hungry for novel experiences and bespoke products. Their expectations of the brands they interact with are ever-rising. They also apply to service standards.

Faced with a manpower shortage, retailers are increasingly looking for technologies that can help reduce reliance on manpower, and at the same time, offer fun and interactive experiences and quality service for consumers.

Self-service technologies (SSTs) and digital solutions such as iPad ordering, self-checkout counters, and even vending machines are some examples. These can also help free up staff resources, who can focus on building meaningful relationships with customers.

However, the concept of “self-service” has been commonly misunderstood in Singapore — it is sometimes negatively perceived by consumers to mean “lack of service”.

Even though various forms of SSTs have been available in Singapore for well over five years, consumers’ receptivity towards self-checkout counters in Singapore is still in its infancy.

Take the F&B sector, for example. With close to 7,000 F&B establishments in Singapore, only about 1,000 have adopted manpower-lean measures such as SSTs since 2011. While this could be partly due to the initial investment in adopting these technologies, the lack of a self-service culture in Singapore is likely to be the other major contributing factor.

To change consumers’ behaviour and create a more pervasive self-service culture in Singapore, the National Productivity Council (NPC), now known as the Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity, launched a We are InDIYpendent campaign in November 2015 to encourage more consumers to embrace self-service or do-it-yourself (DIY) options at supermarkets and F&B outlets.

The government is also providing funding support to defray the cost of adopting such technologies, which can, in the long run, counter rising labor costs.

While there has been a steady increase in SSTs in food and retail outlets, some consumers find them difficult to use. Technological glitches and poor design of the interface are some possible reasons.

In an NPC survey conducted in July 2015, 25 percent of respondents claimed that one reason they did not use SSTs was that they found it difficult to do so. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they fear to hold up the queue.

Such hesitation is not unique to Singapore. The BBC cited a 2009 survey which found that 48 percent of Britons thought self-checkouts at supermarkets were a nightmare, six years after SSTs were first introduced in supermarket chain Tesco. It took close to 12 years for their local press to report that the supermarket chain’s self-checkouts were “getting friendlier” for consumers.

Even though we are only just introducing SSTs in Singapore, it should not be an experience marked by apprehension and inconvenience but, rather, one that is full of possibilities.

So what does that mean for companies looking to implement SSTs?


Apart from ensuring that the system brings about operational efficiencies for the business, it is as important that companies have empathy for the people they serve.

Local supermarket retailer Sheng Siong, for example, looked to a hybrid model of self-payment — where cashiers scan and pack the items but shoppers make payment on their own at self-payment kiosks — instead of immediately adopting the conventional self-checkout kiosks we often see at supermarkets. That was their way of easing the self-service concept to their customers, who tended to be slightly older.

At Han’s, a home-grown restaurant chain, a large percentage of its customers are also older.

It decided to simplify the self-ordering process by including pictures of the food items to make it easier for its customers to navigate the menu and place their orders.

Companies should cater for iterations based on their customers’ feedback.

Listening to customers and asking their opinion will make them feel like they are part of the solution rather than simply being passive subjects.

Take, for example, McDonald’s in the United States. After receiving plenty of customer requests for all-day breakfast, they decided to make their customers’ number one request a reality. This move boosted their 2015 Q4 profits in the US — the best in four years — outperforming analysts’ expectations.

To help customers feel comfortable using the technologies in place, companies could also station service ambassadors at the kiosks. Besides assisting customers with using the software, these ambassadors could also seek customers’ feedback on improvements they hoped to see included for a better system.

Finally, while SSTs continue to play a larger role in our everyday lives, human interaction still forms a big part of a customer’s experience with a brand. We should not underestimate the importance and power of the personal touch in gaining loyalists and increasing revenue for the company. Companies must still ensure that human connections are not neglected in this digital age.


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