Why Try Self-Checkout at Target? It Depends on How Much Time You Have

People go shopping for all sorts of reasons. Some do so out of necessity, buying a load of groceries every week in order to feed their families. Others go to the store for clothes, video games, or the latest and greatest gadget on the market. But no matter what they buy all shoppers share one experience when visiting brick-and-mortar stores: Checkout.


Increasingly, many stores are offering self-checkout lanes in addition to the traditional lanes staffed by one or more employees. These services are growing in popularity, with major retail companies installing them in various locations in recent years. But why would they do so? What value do self-checkout lanes offer to customers, and for that matter, to the company? In order to answer these questions, I decided to conduct an ethnography of shoppers at a Super Target in Huntsville, Alabama.

In doing this, my purpose was to discover what motivations these customers had for using the self-checkout lines instead of the traditional employee-operated machines. In other words, in what contexts do customers use the self-checkout lanes at a Super Target store? And would this information shed any light on their motivations?

Overall, I observed 38 customers, of which 31 bought between one and four items. Credit cards were overwhelmingly the payment method of choice by a margin of 29-8 over cash. There was a good mix between transportation methods as 18 people carried their items to the register in their arms, 14 used carts and seven opted for baskets.


After analyzing the data, I came to one main conclusion above all others:. Time was the primary concern for these shoppers. Consider this: 31 of 38 bought between one and four items—meaning they came to the store for only a few items. In addition, the most-popular method for transporting items to the register was the customers’ own arms. This meant that the customers didn’t want to take the time to use a cart or basket.

Since time constraints appeared to be the primary motivation for customers using self-checkout at this Target location, I firmly believe that Target should consider conducting as much usability testing as possible to ensure a fast and smooth checkout process. The machines work well already but more than 20 percent of the customers I observed still needed assistance to complete their transactions. The fewer the errors, the less Target would need an employee to monitor the self-checkout lanes. That, in turn, would drive down costs for the company.

In addition to time constraints, the physical location of merchandise appeared to be a factor for some customers in deciding whether or not to use self-checkout. In this case, clothing was a popular choice, but other items (for example, greeting cards, snacks, soft drinks, toilet paper, office supplies, and perhaps some groceries like milk) might lend themselves to self-checkout as well, for various reasons. When designing future stores, Target might consider placing some items closer to self-checkout lanes than others.

My final recommendation is simply more of the same. The four self-checkout machines I watched performed well, handling as many customers as a traditional lane, if not more. In the case of this store, one employee monitored all four lanes—a much more efficient use of labor resources than a traditional lane. As long as self-checkout machines satisfy customers’ needs quickly and effectively, there’s no reason not to add more of them.