For most consumers, the store checkout is their key point of interaction with retail brands. This is why Tesco caused a media stir last month when it became the first supermarket to operate a branch using only self-service checkouts, in a trial aimed at improving efficiency.
While it may reduce staff costs and arguably cut the amount of time customers spend queuing, the experiment raises the question of whether the removal of staff-operated tills may be detrimental to service levels and shoppers' experience of the brand.
A spokesman for the retailer says that the trial, which is taking place at a Tesco Express in Kingsley, Northampton, is intended to discover whether more self-service checkouts provide a better service in smaller stores. He claims that the same number of staff will be working in the store, but it has been reported that only one will supervise all five self-serve checkouts.
The use of technology can improve the in-store experience, and self-service checkouts have greatly improved since they were introduced about five years ago. However, Alasdair Lennox, 3D design director at branding agency and retail design specialist Fitch, points out that the technology is still not 'bomb-proof', so scrapping all manned till points in a store is brave. Many brands, he adds, would not have the confidence to do it.
This may be true. Sainsbury's, for example, says it would never introduce a store with solely self-service checkouts and Asda that it cannot envisage this situation. Waitrose, which offers self-scanning, but not self-service checkouts, argues that, as it prides itself on its high levels of customer service, a fully self-service super-market is not a format it would pursue.
The suggestion is, therefore, that Tesco's difference in positioning on this issue may show a lack of concern for its customer shopping experience.
Orit Peleg, shopper marketing planning director at OgilvyAction, points out that while self-service checkouts can attract digitally savvy new shoppers to whom time is the most important currency, other retailers, including Zara and John Lewis, have increased their focus on human interaction to differentiate themselves in the recession.
Lennox argues that while all-self-service stores are not suitable for all environments - villages where human interaction is important, for example - the fact that such checkouts are generally faster to use than manned tills is to their advantage.
However, there is a danger that if the self-serve checkouts are not well-managed, the customer experience rapidly deteriorates. The main risk Tesco faces, according to Lennox, is customer perception that it has axed manned checkouts solely to cut costs. He therefore believes that Tesco must redirect staff into the store to improve the quality of the shop and maintain the brand experience. Key to this, he says, is offering a mix of manned and self-service tills, giving a choice.
It is a view echoed by a Sainsbury's spokeswoman, who says customers want choice and that, while self-serve tills suit some, they are not universally loved. 'We stock thousands of different brands to give customers choice. It wouldn't then make sense to limit their choice at the checkout,' she adds. Sainsbury's is adding self-service checkouts to another 47 of stores this year. It estimates that about 40% of all purchases will be bought using them.
Waitrose, too, concedes that it is always looking into the feasibility of introducing new technologies to its stores, to improve speed of service.
Rival retailers will no doubt be monitoring the success of Tesco's Kingsley store with great interest. If it manages to successfully balance a reduction in operating costs with an improvement in the customer's brand experience, others may try a similar retail format.
99% of stores have self-service checkouts
99% of stores have self-service checkouts (excluding Living)
One in five transactions goes through a self-serve checkout
3.8m shoppers use them every week.
23% of shoppers will use the self-service checkouts
47 more stores will get self-checkout services this year
25%-40% of purchases are made using self-service checkouts
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk