Self-Checkout Faces Practical, Tech Hurdles

Besides trying to function with incompatible databases, self-checkout systems can fail to identify products correctly, and unforgiving interfaces can leave customers frustrated.

/zimages/6/85052.jpg Self-service retail checkout systems are among the hottest growing technology segments, but the new devices are still in an experimental phase and suffer from the startup hiccups of any new technology.

Some of the challenges are technological—such as incompatible databases—while others are either legal (proving the age of a customer wanting to buy tobacco or alcohol) or practical (dealing with produce without a barcode or items too light to be verified by weight).

A technology source for some problems involves the back-end operations and potentially incompatible databases. The backbone of most grocery IT operations is the POS system, typically running on terminals running on a 4690, an 18-year-old IBM proprietary retail multithreaded OS. The self-checkout systems are much more graphically oriented and often run Windows 2000, said Greg Buzek, president of the IHL Consulting Group.

Much of the pricing data is only on the older system, but the weight and product-size information is only on the newer system. The self-service also hands back to the older system when payment is tendered. The problem? The operating systems "dont speak the same language," Buzek said. "There are multiple databases and a translation layer. Pricing updates sometimes dont get passed through."

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read about security problems that self-checkout could invite.

Theres plenty of chance for a price disconnect, with the systems needing to track three price points: on the shelf, in the stores POS database and in the self-checkout systems database.

When that price update doesnt go through, the customer is shown a price different than what might be on the shelf. The entire purchase must now be halted while a clerk is asked to intervene.

"There is an inconsistency from store to store in setting tolerances," Buzek said, with some stores with higher fears of theft setting less-forgiving tolerances than other stores.

/zimages/6/28571.gifSpecialty food maker Bruce Foods is beginning an ambitious effort to modernize its supply chain with software from RedPrairie. Click here to read more.

Some issues have little to do with software challenges and involve more of the very nature of self-checkout systems.

The typical self-service process has a customer scanning each item and then placing it in a bag, where the items weight is checked against what that items weight is supposed to be. At least one vendor—Productivity Solutions—adds another layer of security by using infrared to also measure the size of the package against the products size on file.

There are a handful of areas where self-service systems tend to have problems, such as processing un-barcoded produce, age-authorization items (including cigarettes and alcohol) and very light items that might not register properly on verification scales.

"There are indeed a lot of products that just dont do well in self-checkout," said Mark Frantz, an independent retail analyst in Sarasota, Fla. "But its not that there are so many little things [going wrong] that it bogs down efficient use."

Next Page: Design problems frustrate customers.