Technology automation for Supermarkets – for better or worse?

In the past 6 months I’ve had the opportunity to try automated self-checkout at both Coles and Woolworths.

The machines are relatively easy to figure out. But what I seem to find is a large gap between these two chains with respect to usability and my temptation to throw something at them out of frustration.

Coles had the first self serve checkouts, I used them at Wynyard Station, Sydney to start with. Over time, I found that:

-They were easy to use and intuitive.
-There were no unnecessary steps – once you had finished you could actually insert your cash into the machine and you didn’t have to press anything else to do so.
-There are a few problems sometimes but I think this is part of the learning curve.
-Bags too small at Coles King St.
-Staff are always attentive and quick – they don’t assume that because it’s automated it’s going to always work as intended.

Then they introduce them downstairs at Woolworths Town Hall, where I usually check out.

-Same sort of machines.
-Of the 6-7 there, I’ve only ever seen 3 working.
-It is unclear which ones have just broken, and which ones are okay. Little direction from staff.
-I always see people standing there, unsure what to do.
-I always see people looking like they’re contemplating breaking the machine as it continually throws up errors.
-I always have to have a staff member swipe their card to override a problem. Usually related to the machine detecting an incorrect weight, which is due to the fact it takes so long to fit anything into the tiny bags they provide, or to move the next bag and open a new one (which is a challenge in itself as they are stuck together at the top), that by the time you’ve sorted it the machine thinks you’re shoplifting.
-I always have to press so many buttons to get through – I can’t just enter cash I have to press the “No” to not using my Woolworths rewards points, then press “Cash” it is not intuitive.

Overall, my experiences suggest that Coles has added a new convenient way to speed up the checkout process for people. Whereas Woolworths has aimed to replace people with a computer.

Two companies providing a very similar physical device, but with a very different outcome for customers.

Technology needs to have that extra bit of thought so that it not just new technology but is a useful solution, and there is a very thin line between the two.

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