How Retail Companies Fail at Checkout
Credit cards, self-checkout, and too many questions are just a few of the industry’s design problems
I’ve had something of an obsession with service design in recent years — especially as it relates to shopping and the check-out process. If there is a single area where service design falters, I’ve found, it’s in the checkout line. This usually happens when a business places their needs above a customer’s.
The checkout process especially fascinates me because it’s one of the two or three most critical points in a consumer’s shopping experience. As the Peak-End Rule suggests, a consumer remembers the peak and end of an experience in greater detail. Further, the beginning of an experience can flavor everything that comes after it — this is called the Primacy Effect. And we are better able to remember the most recent portion of an experience, the ending — this is called the Recency Effect. It is, therefore, most important to design for the beginning, the peak, and the end of an experience. With commerce, the end means checkout.
When you’re shopping, the beginning of your experience refers mainly to how you feel as you walk into the store (or as you enter a website). Is it dirty or poorly designed? Is it easy to navigate? Is someone standing there to greet you, give you a cart, or give you a sample? Assuming you find a cart and what you need in the store, it’s the end of the shopping experience that you remember most clearly.
I don’t want to answer 50 questions before I can purchase a beef stick and a soda.
For many years, I waited tables and tended bar. I noticed a trend. If something went wrong when you dropped the check, there was a good chance you could kiss a nice tip goodbye — the customer’s final impression mattered more than everything that came before.
What confounds me is that some retail companies still don’t understand this concept. Some do. But many don’t.
Checkout is, by and large, the final step in a customer’s journey. Here are seven ways I see retail merchants like Target, Walmart, or Meijer fail in service design related to the end of the customer experience and the final impression merchants make with consumers.
1. The cash register “interview”
The checkout lane at almost any national retail or grocery chain has become an obstacle course of questions, surveys, and actions — just to make a simple purchase. It sometimes feels like marketers sat around a table asking, “How can we make the checkout process more painful for a customer?” To get through the payment process, you’re sometimes asked multiple questions — everything from product surveys to your phone number and zip code, to whether you want to give to a charity. It seems as though there’s a marketer behind every register and every checkout process.
I don’t want to give my phone number, zip code, or blood type just to be sent marketing materials. I don’t want to answer 50 questions before I can purchase a beef stick and a soda. And I certainly don’t want to call an automated survey system and spend five minutes with a robot to tell a company what a “great experience” I had purchasing my beef stick and soda. It’s a simple transaction. Beef stick. Soda. Maybe a few groceries or something. Ring it up and get me out of here.
A smart salesperson preys on buyers in a moment of need — like those people selling one dollar bottled waters on a hot day in the city park.
Marketers, of course, are paid to find additional ways into your pockets. They don’t necessarily care about giving you a good experience or making your checkout process smoother. They only care about making the company more money. Best Buy is infamous for this sort of thing; in the past, they’d sell an extended warranty with everything, right down to a $10 CD. They were trying to sell at the wrong moment. A smart salesperson preys on buyers in a moment of need — like the people selling one-dollar bottled waters on a hot day in the city park. Meet a need, and buyers won’t feel exploited.
Another problem with checkout questions? The concept of saying “no.” People don’t like to say no; our culture tells us to say yes. I certainly don’t enjoy saying no when asked if I’d like to donate to the Poor Orphan Shelter Charity. Saying no to orphans gives people a negative feeling. It adds a negative connotation to the sale process. That is not what you want a customer to feel at the end of their experience with your company.
None of this is the cashier’s or even the manager’s fault. Someone, somewhere, mandated these questions be asked. They probably get a bonus based on the number of times people say “yes.”
2. Lines and perception
Though I don’t necessarily enjoy waiting in line, I’m willing to do so when I understand the store is doing everything it can to accommodate everyone. If there are 10 cashiers at all 10 registers with lines behind each, I almost never feel frustrated. This is called the “labor illusion” — customers are more tolerant of a wait when they “can see work being done on their behalf.”
Many superstores, however, have too many checkout registers and not enough cashiers. After finding everything you need, you come to the checkout area with 30 registers and only five in service, all with huge lines. This gives the impression that the store could do more. After all, there are 25 more registers and surely they could open another one or two. Why would a store need to install 30 checkout lanes if they rarely use them all at one time?
This problem is largely about human perception. One simple fix would be to cut the number of registers installed and use more of them during busy times. This would give the impression that a greater effort is being employed to move people through the lines, shaping consumer perception for the better.
3. Forced self-checkout
Self-checkout is another problem stemming from a store putting its needs (decreased labor costs) above the consumer’s (a better end experience). Self-checkout is great when you have just a few items, are in a rush, and there are no lines. The downside? You’re now forced to do manual labor for the store, labor that used to be free. Though store saves money, the discount is not passed on to you.
You scan your own groceries, bag them, put them back in your cart, and receive nothing for your labor. I remember when designated “bag people” waited at the end of the line to help you with your groceries. Now you’re the bag person and, still, the price of groceries has risen. They’ve eliminated jobs and passed the profits onto their board of directors. It’s classic American corporate philosophy and the primary reason why I rarely shop at superstores.
Moreover, self-checkout spaces are simply not designed for bulky items. Worse still is feeling forced into self-checkout when there aren’t enough cashiers to manage the regular lines. In fact, there usually aren’t even enough cashiers to manage self-checkout.
4. Did you find everything you were looking for?
If you do manage to make it through an “old school” line, with a real human for a cashier, he or she might ask if you found everything you were looking for. But why? Isn’t it a little late to ask a question like that?
Are they truly prepared to hold up the line while someone helps me find what I’m missing?
Here I am — I’ve waited in line for the past 15 minutes. I’ve placed all my stuff on the conveyor belt as three people wait behind me, and they ask me if I found everything I was looking for? Just once I’d like to say, “No. I was looking for the Charmin 12-pack of TP instead of the 18-pack and I couldn’t find the no-scent Febreeze.” What would they do? Are they truly prepared to hold up the line while someone helps me find what I’m missing?
They’ve picked the wrong time — the wrong point of need — in the shopping experience to ask me this question. I’m guessing they never took the time to blueprint their service design.
5. Credit card obstacles
These days, paying with a credit card is easier than ever. But there’s a lot of room for improvement. The one problem with paying by credit card is how it can interrupt the customer’s flow.
Every store seems to have its own credit card process. Do you cancel for credit or hit enter? Do you have to hand the card to the cashier or insert it yourself? Do you need to stand there with an electronic pen at the ready? Some stores seem to be able to figure it out: just swipe and you’re done. That’s how it should be for all stores.
I would appreciate a business that rewards me in savings regardless of whether I use a store charge card or not.
If your credit card isn’t signed on the back, you may be asked for identification. This is a crime against logic. It usually occurs when you make an inexpensive purchase — which makes the crime against logic even more grievous. The entire signature routine is an exercise in idiocy. If I sign the back of my credit card, I’m not asked for ID. But if I’m not asked for ID, how does that guarantee I am the owner of the card?
6. Pushing the store credit card
I once went to buy some golf shirts at Kohl’s. When I was checking out, the cashier asked if I would be putting this purchase on my Kohl’s charge card. I stated that I would be paying cash. I was then asked if I had a Kohl’s charge card. When I replied that I did not, the cashier proceeded to explain — at length — the savings and benefits of having a Kohl’s charge card. I declined several times before being able to complete my sale.
I would appreciate a business that rewards me in savings regardless of whether I use a store charge card or not. Additionally, none of these pitches for charge cards are in the customer’s best interest; they are purely in the interest of the business. Marketers know that a person is more willing to part with money he has not yet earned than with earned cash sitting in an account. This psychological concept is called “hyperbolic discounting.” The 15–20 percent off coupons Kohl’s regularly sends out only reinforce this tendency, and it all seems great until your bill arrives at the end of the month. You don’t really “cash in on savings” with these cards — you just spend more.
The store credit card also allows the company to gather more data on you — your shopping habits, your personal information — so they can better target you in their marketing efforts.
7. Ancillary products, the worst offender
One brilliant marketing idea is to try and sell you more (or offer you some other product) at the point of purchase, even when it isn’t in your best interest. This is sometimes referred to by marketers as an “ancillary product.” Here’s what Dyana Mullins of Fusion has to say about this type of sale:
Whether [customers are] buying plane tickets, renting a car, or booking a hotel — there are more than likely other add-ons available to help improve their entire order. Every moment counts in sales. What better place to close a deal than when a customer is already in the process of making a purchase? Giving your customers the option to buy ancillary products that complement their purchase is not only a good business practice that will drive sales, but it also provides another layer of customer service.
Mullins is referring primarily to online sales. I would agree that offering ancillary products can be useful if done in the interest of building a better customer experience. However, it’s usually not done for that purpose, and it’s usually not done well. Products are most often offered, as Mullins notes above, to “drive sales.”
Ancillary products are not usually pertinent to the purchase at hand (thus violating the very definition of ancillary). Redbox asks once a month during the checkout process whether I would like to upgrade to Blu-ray instead of DVD. I don’t own a Blu-ray.
I have to disagree with Mullins’ article; I tend to despise ancillary products. They’re generally sales-driven, and they interrupt a user’s flow. When the user clicks checkout or walks over to the register, he or she has a goal in mind. The user is done shopping and would now like to complete the purchase. This is not the time to try and sell something else or place obstacles between the user and his or her goal. That only serves to taint the user experience.
Good service design is important. It’s even more critical at the end of an experience, due to the Peak-End Rule and the Recency Effect. Primary culprits of poor user experience place a business’ needs before a user’s, breaking the user’s flow.
Blueprint your service. Map the user’s experience to discover where your design or service falls short. Most importantly, avoid these seven pitfalls of bad service design to make a good start toward a positive end.