Self-Checkout Prevails in the New Blended Service Approach

More retailers are realizing the benefits of self-service, even in more “normal” times.
More retailers are realizing the benefits of self-service, even in more “normal” times.

During the pandemic, many retailers had to pivot their in-store customer experience to create a safe, healthy, and streamlined environment or make the tough decision to shut down completely. Retailers were quick to adopt limited interaction, self-service solutions like self-checkout and were able to leverage agile decision-making to stay competitive, bring in much-needed revenue, and meet evolving customer demands.

Now, with a full pandemic year behind us, more retailers are realizing the benefits of self-service, even in more “normal” times. And many are keeping or adding additional self-service and self-checkout systems to support a new in-store shopping experience. While many businesses had to make drastic adjustments because of the pandemic, it was also a driving force behind self-service solutions and pushing the agenda for digital transformation, both of which were slow to adopt in the U.S. market pre-pandemic.

Could the success of brick-and-mortar stores now depend on a new blended service approach and has the pandemic accelerated retailers’ sense of urgency? The simple answer is yes.  

Convenient and Customizable
Whether shopping for groceries, fashion, home improvement or other goods, shoppers have become comfortable with getting in and out of stores quickly and efficiently. But a bad checkout process can derail a positive experience. Habitual, slow-moving lines have been a pain point even before the pandemic and with the explosion in e-commerce, shoppers need a great in-store experience to remain loyal. If 2020 taught retailers anything, it’s that improving this in-store experience is a top priority.

Because of this, retailers are looking at a new blended service approach. Store associates, human-centered payments and returns are not going away. But self-service solutions, primarily for checkout, proved beneficial during the pandemic and are here to stay.

[Related: Retaining the New Consumer Through the Power of Technology]

Retailers are leveraging self-checkout in a variety of ways. For example, small stores might use self-checkout as a step toward autonomous retail, while larger stores are using self-checkout as a steppingstone to incorporate omnichannel solutions like BOPIS, contactless payment terminals, self-service kiosks and curbside.

By testing out a variety of human-assisted and self-service options, retailers can meet shopper demand for a faster, easier and safer buying experience, without sacrificing the quality of the service.

Connecting with Purpose
Retailers now have a surplus of open positions, but few prospects to hire. From health and safety concerns among the workforce to expanded unemployment benefits, retailers continue to face a labor shortage. In response to these challenges, many are looking at self-checkout as a way to connect and deliver a great customer experience in the face of lean staff.

With more shoppers comfortable with self-service, retailers can keep labor costs down and redeploy employees in more customer-centric roles where human interaction is expected and needed. For example, a home improvement store might use store associates to provide personal recommendations for tools but create a self-service checkout area with secure lockers for shoppers that buy a tool online and pick it up in the store.

In this case, both customers receive the exact experience they want, and the retailer optimizes their staff availability and roles.

[See also: Top Grocery Trends 2021: Reinventing the Customer Experience]

In fact, self-service can create time for employees to interact with shoppers in more meaningful ways. They create new skilled roles and responsibilities for employees, shifting them from check-out to specialized customer service, managing inventory and preventing out-of-stocks, fulfilling online orders or working the sales floor. In other words, self-checkout systems are not a replacement for human customer support, but instead, strike the right balance between direct interaction and hands-off service.

Pivoting to Digital Transformation
Digital transformation is at the heart of addressing critical challenges for retail organizations. Swiftly changing customer preferences and shopper volumes, evolving health protocols, and labor pain points have made it difficult to sustain traditional brick and mortar operations. This is especially true if they are using the same, outdated service model. A need for modernization and meeting customer expectations in the age of eCommerce are driving change faster than ever before.

Today’s shoppers value efficiency, safety and consistency, but they still want human assistance when they need it. This new blended service model takes cues from e-commerce where shoppers self-serve online until they need help. In fact, some compare today’s store associates as the equivalent of the “always-on” chat agent.

They’re always available and can quickly step in when a customer has a high touch need or a situation that can’t be addressed through self-service. As shoppers and in-store environments change, this blended service model will continue to evolve, leveraging new tools, technologies and service models.

Meeting the expectations of shoppers today will keep them coming back tomorrow, whether in-store or online. But the expansion of self-checkout and the huge shift in customer preferences for more self-service options in stores sent retailers a clear message. Smart retailers are embracing this unexpected pandemic-driven change and using it to create a better, more customer-focused approach to service and the in-store experience.

Brad Fick is president of Direct Source.

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