business news in context, analysis with attitude

By Kevin Coupe

Over the weekend, NBC Nightly News did a story prompted by Kroger’s decision to open a store in Ohio that does not have manned checkout lanes - everything is self-checkout.  (Though, as I understand it, there are associates available to help folks out who might be having a hard time.)

The Nightly News spent some time at Stew Leonard’s, which also installed some self-checkout lanes in recent years, and “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert for comment about the broader trend and how shoppers are reacting to it.  Take a look, and I’ll come back on the other side to comment:

I have the advantage of being (as all of you know) a longtime, regular Stew Leonard’s shopper.  And I must admit that when Stew’s installed self-checkout just a few years ago (he was later than most retailers in adopting this technology), my first reaction was negative.  I thought that Stew’s had a better checkout experience than most retailers, and that he was giving up on a differential advantage.  I couldn’t imagine I ever would use them.

Side note:  Many retailers, when asked what makes them different, will offer some variation on “friendly people” or “friendly checkouts.”  I would argue that most retailers who say this are delusional.  Their checkout lanes and people are never as exceptional as they think they are, with, of course, some exceptions.  I do think that there will be retailers who will work hard to differentiate their checkout lanes and people, and will be successful - Dorothy Lane Markets comes to mind.  Their approach will counter the trend, and they’ll be successful.  But most retailers, sometimes just because of ongoing labor shortages, won’t be able to that.  And most customers will adapt and even will embrace these changes.  (My local Stop & Shop stores would be far better off if they went to all-self-checkout technology.  The folks working the lanes aren’t helping anything.)

Here’s the thing.  For some reason, one day I decided to use Stew’s self-checkouts.  Maybe the lines for the staffed checkouts were too long; I honestly don’t remember.  And since that day, I’ve never used anything but the self-checkout lanes at Stew Leonard’s.

Note to Stew Leonard, Jr.:  You’re mistaken when you say that older people don’t use the self-checkouts.  I have lots of gray hair, and I use them.  I love them.

Innovation by its very nature points to the future, not the past.  It focuses on what coming generations will embrace and things in which they will find value, not what generations past - and passing - valued.  That’s not to say that you toss out everything from the past;   There always will be customers for tradition, for the way things always have been done.  One has to cater to them, to the degree that makes sense from a marketing and demographic point of view, but one also has to innovate for the future, even at the risk of taking a few slings and arrows.  (See my FaceTime video, above, which ends up being about precisely this subject.)

I think Stew Jr. gets it right when he says that the technology only will improve, and that we’re not going back to a time when self-checkout didn’t exist.  As Kroger’s experiment with an all-self-checkout store indicates, use of this technology and its progeny only is going to grow.

(By their way, I check out fresh produce at self-checkout lanes all the time, not just at Stew’s but also at Whole Foods and other supermarkets.  It ain’t hard.)

Note to Phil Lempert:  You’re wrong when you say that not one person in this country wants to use an all-self-checkout store.  I’d be happy to use one.  And I think that if you asked younger customers - as opposed to all the apparently old, cranky customers interviewed on-camera by NBC News - you’d get an entirely different response.

Think for a moment about other areas of the culture in which versions of these kinds of technological shifts have tracked place.  How many people want to return to the toll booths of old, as opposed the license plate-recognition technology or EZ-Pass-style systems that are prevalent today?  How many people would give up the technological advances made at airport check-in lines that speed that process along?  Maybe some, but certainly not everybody.  (Not me!)  Sure, there are glitches and exceptions that call the advances into question.  But that is the nature of advances.

Finally, a note to NBC News:

Other than the Kroger experiment - which still is an outlier;  it is, after all, just one store - I’m not sure why the story was positioned the way it was - self-checkout technology first appeared in supermarkets more than 30 years ago, and we already can see that the next iteration of the tech - checkout-free platforms like those pioneered by Amazon, Zippin and Standard AI -  is coming.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow.  But sometime relatively soon, and (I believe) it eventually will be as ubiquitous as scanning.  That’s what NBC News ought to be doing stories about - how technology advances improve our lives, not how grouchy older people set in their ways resist change.  (What's next?  Stories about how curmudgeons want kids to get off their lawns?)

If NBC News had asked me for my opinion, I would have offered a different take on the issue. But I also would’ve suggested that they talk to some younger people about it.  I think a younger demographic would’ve offered a vastly different - and yes, even Eye-Opening - assessment of wherever this and other technologies are going.

For the record, I like what Kroger is doing with self-checkout in Tennessee.  It may work.  It may not.  Either way, Kroger will learn something that will make its next move smarter and informed by experience, not bias.  As someone once said, it isn’t an experiment if you know how it is going to turn out.