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The Globe and Mail

'Please place the item in the bag': Are self checkouts effective?

In this Sept. 23, 2011 photo, a row of self checkout lines are available at a Big Y supermarket in Manchester, Conn. A growing number of supermarket chains are bagging their self-serve checkout lanes, saying they can offer better customer service when clerks help shoppers directly. Big Y Foods, which has more than 60 southern New England locations, recently became the latest to announce it's phasing them out.

Jessica Hill/(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Please place the item in the bag.

Please place the item in the bag.

See cashier for assistance.

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Ever thought your local grocery store's self checkout was more malevolent than HAL?

Since its inception, the technology has strongly divided consumers: some love its efficiency while others revile it for glitching up on them with every visit.

Not so long ago, the do-it-yourself option was seen as a revolution in retail, saving companies labour costs while expediting the shopping experience. Now, many customers have turned their back on the aisles, preferring human contact in traditional lanes instead.

Just 16 per cent of supermarket transactions happened in self checkout lanes last year, with shoppers reporting more satisfaction from their interactions with cashiers, according to a Food Marketing Institute study cited in the Huffington Post.

An August survey of 16,000 North Americans conducted by Empathica found that more than half of the Canadians polled said self checkouts were "not applicable" in their grocery experience -- meaning their local supermarket hadn't even jumped on the technology in the first place.

(At the same time, the survey found North Americans felt self checkouts were the most important technology in their grocery experience compared to store websites, coupon kiosks, in-store wireless and the like.)

HuffPo reports that in the States, some companies are phasing out the self-serve lanes altogether, including Big Y Foods, an east coast chain. An internal study at the company found customers were often confused and subsequently delayed at the checkouts, especially when coupons were involved.

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There was also the issue of "intentional and accidental theft," including shoppers misidentifying pricier produce and baked goods as cheaper items (avocados as potatoes, anyone?)

A number of Facebook groups have been devoted to hating on a wide range of self checkout experiences, from the technology itself, to the people who can't seem to wrap their heads around the technology, right on down to the automated voice that lets you know your frozen entrees have been successfully bagged.

As the love-hate relationship evolved, some enterprising Brits started making t-shirts featuring those mortifying error messages: "Unexpected item in the bagging area," the British machines announce.

"It's like the machine is very publicly saying 'you are too stupid to do this - go home now'. It's far from ideal," Bjorn Weber of retail analysts Planet Retail told BBC.

What has your experience been like in the self checkout lane?

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