Huge Target change could transform Australian shopping

Overseas retailers are waking up to the folly of self-service check-outs.

Target in the US has now restricted self-service to people with 10 items or fewer in an effort to speed up queues and – hold on to your hat – they’re bringing back more manned check-outs to compensate.

It trialled the set-up last year, finding self-service lines moved twice as fast and surveyed customers said it led to a better overall experience.

Dollar General, one of America’s fastest growing retailers, invested heavily in self-service in 2022 but, by the end of last year, its chief executive said the business “should be using self-checkout as a secondary checkout vehicle, not a primary”.

So why don’t Australian retailers wake up and do the same?

The big supermarkets are suffering enough grief at the moment with accusations of price gouging and ripping off farmers. Winding back self-service and bringing back real check-outs would be an easy win.

They have been a frustrating, failed experiment. No doubt supermarkets would claim that self-service is popular and its use has soared – but that is only because all the real check-outs have been ripped out and customers have been left with little choice.

My local Coles has three or four manned check-outs. The rest are self-service.

It’s not that people want to go through self-serve – they’re forced to do so.

The point of self-service was meant to be two-fold – supermarkets would save on labour as customers would do their own scanning and consumers would receive faster service.

But neither of those have turned out to be true.

Staff are constantly required to assist customers when machines chuck a fit and people soon worked out they could use self-service to steal by ringing up more expensive produce as cheaper items or not scanning them at all.

Supermarkets realised they were losing money, not saving it, so they compensated with big brother cameras above check-outs to monitor your every move and electric gates to lock you in the shop if they think you’re trying to pilfer.

This, unsurprisingly, makes customers feel like criminals before they’ve committed any crime.

I recently encountered, for the first time, a Woolworths self-service checkout going mad at me because I still had a bag in my trolley. It was from another store.

I was taken aback. I’m not a thief. And all that rigmarole makes you go back to a traditional checkout.

But that’s the second promise on which self-service has failed – speed.

British trade magazine The Grocer has for decades conducted a mystery shopper survey, called Grocer 33.

It last year found satisfaction with customer service had fallen to record lows driven by wait-times at manned check-outs. Customers who refuse to give in to self-service have to wait longer because all the check-outs have been ripped out.

We’re over it. We just want some customer service.

If I wanted to scan groceries I’d get a job at a supermarket – except, I suppose, that they’ve taken those jobs away in favour of machines.

Caleb Bond is an Sydney-based commentator and host of The Late Debate on Sky News Australia.

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