Stage Fright at Self-Scan Check Out

December 02, 2009

Self-scanning checkout stations have become popular cost-cutting tools for retailers in recent years.

Self-scanning checkout stations have become popular cost-cutting tools for retailers in recent years. In 2008 alone, transactions at North American self-service kiosks surpassed $607 billion, and some experts predict this spending could reach over $1.7 trillion by 2012. However, consumer comfort with self-scan checkout – and therefore, their desire to use such systems – could be inhibited by technological anxiety and social pressure.

Researchers at Villanova School of Business, University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Western Carolina University examined customer use of self-checkout machines in a Mississippi Kroger Co. grocery store and published their results in the journal Services Marketing Quarterly. They found that shoppers avoid using self-scan checkout machines for fear of appearing incompetent in front of their peers. 

Although approximately 90% of the 114 respondents had used self-service checkout before participating in the study, the majority experienced a negative perception of the system when there was one other customer waiting in line to use the machine behind them – something that researcher and Villanova School of Business professor Dr. Michael Capella refers to as a type of “stage fright.”

“The ‘stage fright phenomenon’ occurs due to shoppers enhanced sense of self with the mere presence of an additional shopper using the self-service technology (SST). However, as additional shoppers use the SST, consumers feel less influenced by the social presence of others,” says Capella. 

Interestingly, when it comes to technology, it seems that there is safety in numbers. While self-consciousness may have been triggered with one person present, additional persons helped create a protective feeling of anonymity, says Capella. Emotional responses were more positive when social size increased from one to three customers.

“We hypothesized that the greater the number of additional shoppers, the more pressure and less confidence a consumer would feel; so we were somewhat surprised by the condition with three shoppers which elicited a similar response to no other shoppers using the SST,” he says. 

Shoppers going through the self-scan checkout lane alone did indeed do so with a lower amount of stress – perhaps because the confidence to use a new technology was not threatened by peer influences. Younger customers were significantly more confident in their use of SST than older shoppers; there was no significant ethnic or income differences influencing check out behavior.

“Presumably the familiarity and comfort level with technology by younger consumers explains our findings,” says Capella. “As a result, advertising campaigns aimed at alleviating consumer trepidation regarding SST adoption seem appropriate.”

Negative perceptions toward SST not only contributed to a customer’s lack of willingness to use the technology again, but they also contributed to a customer’s lack of willingness to recommend the technology to others. Therefore, improving the perception of SST will be vital to its long-term success.

“Because of retailers’ interest in maximizing the efficiency of service delivery resources and minimizing personnel labor costs, the potential financial benefits of SST adoption are very enticing. As consumers become acclimated to SST, more and more retailers are likely to utilize the technology,” says Capella.

To increase familiarity and normalize the process of using SST, Capella suggests that retailers educate and encourage customers on the ease of using the machines. In addition, he says that a redesign of the machines may be needed to improve usability. And finally, Capella calls on retailers to pay close attention to where they actually position the units.

“It is advised that retailers implementing SST place great emphasis on spatial placement,” he adds. “In other words, retailers should be cognizant of placement in high traffic areas to avoid perceived ‘crowding’ and pressure or near other sensitive products, like condoms, which may increase the likelihood of perceived social influence.”