Woolies lets shoppers check themselves out

Woolworths has announced it's rolling out technology that lets shoppers scan and pay for their own groceries — but the checkout girl isn't an endangered species just yet.

Woolworths has announced it's rolling out technology that lets shoppers scan and pay for their own groceries — but the checkout girl isn't an endangered species just yet.

After successful trials of NCR's Fastlane self-service checkout facility in Sydney's Carlingford and Melbourne's Camberwell Safeway, Woolworths Australia will be rolling out the technology across all of its new and refurbished supermarkets.

Woolworths' Marty Hamnett scans himself through.

Credit: Marcus Browne, ZDNet.com.au

More than 70 stores are expected to have the technology installed by the end of June in a move that will see the company become the first of Australia's large supermarket retailers to introduce the technology, with an estimated four terminals per store to be unveiled.

Each self-service checkout is equipped with a user interface touch screen, Eftpos terminal, cash dispenser, barcode scanner, and a scale to check the weight of each scanned item entering a shopper's grocery bag.

According to Marty Hamnett, Woolworths' general manager of retail operations, the scale acts as the system's main theft deterrent. By comparing the weight of each item being scanned and the overall weight of the shopping bag at the end of the process, the system can alert a staff member via a PDA if any items are going unscanned.

"The computer knows the weight of every article in the store, and will register the difference between what's been scanned and what goes into the bag," said Hamnett, speaking to press at Sydney's Northbridge Woolworths, where the technology has recently been introduced.

"This is by no means the death knell of the manned checkout," he said. "Of course, they will never fully replace standard or express checkouts."

In addition to providing self-service checkout facilities, the Fastlane system also allows users to purchase mobile phone credit and dispenses petrol vouchers.

Hamnett said trials had revealed the tendency for the self-service terminals to attract shoppers with fewer items, while those with large trolley loads of groceries still preferred manned checkouts.

"We did expect the technology to favour customers with fewer items, because quite frankly it's faster for them," he said.

One shopper, Linda, from Sydney's Ryde said the system has its advantages, but some issues remain. "I've used them elsewhere, they're very easy to use, but they're obviously designed only for a few items, and you have to leave your bags on the floor as you put each one through."

"I've even let my 11 year-old use it," she said, "but it can get frustrating when there are problems with the scales and the operator has to come over and help out."

The terminals are housed in an open checkout lane and manned by a staff member equipped with a PDA, ready to assist shoppers when necessary in addition to their security role.

Woolworths' Hamnett said that the company had expected the self-service lanes to attract mostly young, tech-savvy customers, but was surprised when results yielded from the trials showed that the terminals were being used across all age groups, adding that approximately 20 percent of all transactions are now conducted through the terminals at the locations they have been trialled in.

However, Woolworths customer and aged care worker Linda said: "It's really not for older people. They [her clients] wouldn't be able to use it."

Although Hamnett stated that some customers had found the system a faster option for them — especially when purchasing fewer items — he said the company had not tracked the average transaction time as part of the trial.

"We haven't run into any major problems so far," Woolworths' Hamnett told ZDNet.com.au. "The system was rolled out in Big W about five years ago, so we were already aware of any major issues from that experience."

The retail giant introduced a similar self-checkout system to two of its large suburban Big W stores in Sydney in late 2002 for a 12-month pilot, in parallel with UK retailer Marks & Spencer, and US supermarket chain Publix.

Hamnett said Woolworths would not reveal the details of how much the system will cost citing "competitive reasons".


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