Putting the Spotlight on Checkout Areas

The checkout area with its cashier counters is normally the last stop of the shopper in a store, when carrying at least one product to buy. It is easy to neglect this location in the store by thinking that the shopper is arriving there just to pay, collect the items purchased (or hand over to delivery), and leave. But there is more that can happen in checkout beyond payment, specifically in making last minute purchases.

As the consumer spends longer time touring a (large) store on his or her shopping trip, the attraction of the checkout area to the shopper increases (in other words, the shopper more strongly desires to end the shopping trip). This phenomenon is particularly associated with shopping in food stores like supermarkets that sell also other grocery and household products. However, it could also prevail in stores for other types of products (e.g., DIY and home improvement, electrics and electronics, fashion), where the retailer displays many and varied items in a layout spread over a wide-area floor (hence any single large floor in a department store may also apply). The longer the shopping trip progresses, the shopper is likely to less engage in exploring sections in the store (supermarket) and to concentrate on buying products (i.e., the shopper will skip entire parts of the store in favour of entering those sections or aisles where he or she intends to choose products to buy). The tendency to gravitate towards checkout tends to grow in response to increased time pressure perceived by the shopper [*]. Such gravitation may be experienced, for instance, when the shopper enters an aisle from the back of the store and feels urged to exit on its other end closer to checkout rather than return to the back of the store and proceed with the shopping trip.

Yet, when the shopper arrives to a cashier counter, time may pause. Especially if one has to wait in line, this creates an opportunity to consider additional purchases.

Firstly, a shopper may choose from products placed next to the cashier counter. Stores often provide multiple options for last minute purchases at hand’s reach. These are  usually inexpensive items easy to pick-up. One may be reminded for instance that he is out of batteries or tissues and take a pack from the nearby stand. The retailer may also put products on special discount (e.g., ‘last-in-stock’ offers, chocolate gifts in advance of holidays) as shoppers access the cashiers for checkout. Then there are the ‘temptations’ shoppers could buy on impulse to spoil themselves (or their children) from a variety of small sweet or salty snacks (e.g., chocolate-coveted waffles, potato chips, chewing gums or candies of different flavours). By the time consumers get to checkout their self-control is more likely to be depleted and they are more prone to make yet another unplanned purchase.

But shoppers seem to make even more extensive considrations and decisions about products situated more far afield while standing in checkout. Waiting gives shoppers the chance to think again if they have forgotten anything, or maybe re-contemplate making an unplanned purchase they rejected earlier. It is not uncommon to see a shopper leaving the shopping cart in front of the counter and going to bring yet another product (if there is enough time one may go and return even twice). Shoppers may furthermore get ideas for unplanned purchases of products from end-of-aisle displays facing the checkout area — from her place in line the shopper may notice a visually appealing ‘invitation’ and make the short walk to pick-up the product and add to the cart or basket.

  • The ‘trips’ shoppers embark on from the checkout area can sometimes be quite long, deep into the aisles, and take a few minutes until they return with the sought out product. It is hard to anticipate what products shoppers may remember as late. Still, a retailer may identify products that are more essential to consumers, and are ‘fast moving’, so as to place them on shelves inside aisles and closer to the checkout area, quick and easy to access.

But the environment in supermarkets is changing, and shopping patterns that were allowed and even encouraged till now could be forced to diminish.

Supermarkets have been removing in the past few years some of their human cashier counters (in some cases about a half), replacing them with self-service cashier stations — each station includes a small counter and a computer-cashier terminal. The stations are positioned in a special checkout court usually in place where counters with human cashiers stood (thus 8 stations can be positioned, for example, instead of 4 human-staffed counters). The human cashier is now actually the customer. This method should decrease the probability of a customer having to stand in line or the number of customers waiting in line for a free self-service cashier station.

In practice the new method is not helpful and workable for every customer — especially older customers (e.g., 65+) and those less comfortable with computers are reluctant to try the self-service cashier counters. Some customers, particularly with full carts, still prefer to be serviced by a skilled human cashier. All these customers can still be found in lines, often longer ones, at the traditional checkout counters. This can frequently be evident at a time that most of the self-service stations are unused. But those stations do get employed, especially by younger customers (e.g., 30 something), and shoppers in a hurry or with just a few items taken out from a basket. Sometimes customers get mixed-up in the process, such as with scanning a product, weighing fruits or vegetables, or getting the product wrongly identified or unrecognised (errors that happen to staff cashiers as well), or having problems with payment. For those cases a permanent customer assistant must be present at all times to help customers resolve their issues and complete the purchase.

Yet, a conspicuous property of new self-service checkout areas could be noticed recently — the area or court is stripped from products anywhere around the stations. A shopper that enters the court may become isolated from the rest of the store. This has a positive aspect in eliminating any distractions from the checkout process done independently by the shopper and can help to hasten the process. There could also be a health benefit, that is by keeping the shopper away from sweets and snacks. However, it also cancels certain shopping habits that were natural, convenient and helpful to the shoppers (and also to retailers). It should not be that much of a nuisance to place a board with some useful and hedonic products next to the self-service stations. In reality, the opposite seems to happen, that is the number of products placed next to traditional cashier counters dwindles. Stands with products on discount deals may still be found in the traditional checkout area, but it may not be on the way, accessible or immediately visible to shoppers who turn to the self-service checkout area.

  • Note: Self-service cashier stations are still hard to find at this time in stores specialising in other product categories and in department stores.

The next stage is the cashier-less store with no discernible checkout area. Checkout is virtual, digital, and happens once the shopper goes out the gate or door. The early springs of this retail model already exist (e.g., Amazon Go convenience stores — “Just Walk Out”). Anything said above about shopping patterns at checkout supposedly would become irrelevant and non-valid. But the cashier-less model is still in its infancy and there are a number of issues to be resolved (e.g., in technology and application of the method) vis-à-vis human shopping behaviour tendencies.

At the moment Amazon Go stores, for instance, are characterised by quick shopping trips (e.g., “take away” prepared meals and other food items and drinks soon to be consumed), and perhaps trips to fill-in essential items missing at home. It is still unclear how the method would work for ‘heavier’ shopping missions. In particular, the methodology appears to apply to pre-packaged items taken off shelves (including in refrigerators), not to items in bulk to be weighed like fruits and vegetables. There seems to be no indication also where shoppers are supposed to move their purchased items into bags to take with them. Furthermore, at a traditional checkout counter you can ask the cashier for any clarifications about prices, discount validity or the final bill (on paper slip and now also on mobile phone). Even at the self-service station one can see on the screen the items and prices that roll as the checkout proceeds. With cashier-less stores, the shopper gets the bill on mobile app (e.g., Amazon Prime) only after leaving the store; then it is not simple to go back and find a representative to ask anything if needed.

These points suggest that a physical checkout area may not become obsolete; an area before exit with support services and counters to re-organise (e.g., before the gates) will remain needed. Perhaps cashier-less stores are simply not ready for performing more consequential shopping. When the model matures, then it should also be possible to place boards with easy-to-pick products that shoppers can grab just before going out through the gate.

The method for checkout is going through transformation, and even greater changes to this process are expected to take place in the future. However, the concept of a checkout area can remain in a new form that will answer to the needs and conveniences of shoppers. More careful thought should be given to modes of human behaviour, such as the benefit of having the time to pause and think over the shopping trip (e.g., accounting for limitations of human memory). The physical checkout area or court may always be the place for receiving human customer support, re-organising before leaving the store, and why not taking a small dark chocolate bar at the last minute on the way out.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[*] Testing Behavioral Hypotheses Using an Integrated Model of Grocery Store Shopping Path and Purchase Behavior; Sam K. Hui, Eric T. Bradlaw, & Peter S. Fader, 2009; Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (October), pp. 478-493 (Herb Sornsen labeled this phenomenon the “checkout magnet” in his book Inside the Mind of the Shopper.)

Also see “Deconstructing the ‘First Moment of Truth’: Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking” by Yui, Huang, Suher, & Inman, 2013 in the Journal of Marketing Research on planned and planned purchases.