Poor User Experience of Self-Checkout Kiosks

I was paying a return visit to a local Safeway supermarket to buy a refreshing refreshe Apple Cider sparkling water to take sanctuary from the oppressive heat outside this afternoon. I was hopeful of scoring a powerful discount on two bottles because I had received a 50 cent off coupon (if you buy 2) earlier that day. My story turned to sour apples at the self-checkout kiosk. 

Hot Temperatures Driving People To The Stores?

Temperatures were in the 90s (30+ C) and humidity oppressive with little breeze or shade to be found. I returned to a Safeway I’d visited just earlier that day because I was still in the neighborhood, having picked up my laptop after it had been in the repair shop for a few hours. You would think all is well–supermarkets want customers’ return business–right?

The Bait

Save 50 cents off two 1-liter bottles of sparkling water beverage from Safeway, expires 09-24-2016.

The 50-cent off coupon

I received a coupon just like this one (for reasons that will soon become obvious, the actual coupon could not be here to be photographed).

Fifty cents off if I buy TWO (2) refreshe 1 liter bottles of clear, naturally-flavored sparkling water, expiring on September 24, 2016. I’d have lots of time to use it, but keeping track of slips of paper is more of a headache than carrying two quarters, so I thought it would be better to use it sooner  Ordinarily, I’d only buy one at a time because that’s enough to quench my thirst and I don’t want to have a lot to carry.  Only because I had this coupon, I tried to buy two of these bubbly beverages.

Cool, clear, sparkling refreshment with natural apple cider flavor.

The sparkling oasis of apple cider goodness.

Self-Checkout Experience

We’ve all seen them, self-checkout kiosks replacing human cashiers. Having only two items, paying with cash, and already being a Safeway shopper’s club member I figured it’d just go more smoothly if I went the mechanical route. Human-friendly cashiers were already ensconced behind lines of shoppers with full shopping carriages, and I didn’t feel like waiting.

Past Experiences have been Checkered at Best

This desire to go the efficient and expedient route was despite my having had a number of bad self-checkout experiences before.

At a Giant supermarket in Herndon, Virginia, there was a maniacal self-checkout machine which insisted I put a 2-liter bottle of seltzer on a conveyor belt that sloped downward into the underworld. It naturally exploded when it tipped over at the end, but just try explaining that to the machine. I now roll bottles down such poorly designed systems, although that sometimes doesn’t trigger the electronic eye they have, because above all obedience to the directions of the machine are paramount, not the safety of the food products for which you’ve just been charged.

Then there was the Shop-Rite kiosk which mis-counted the exact change I had deposited by a penny, which I gave it to avoid getting 99 cents back but merely a single dollar bill. It of course gave me 99 cents change, anyway. This when the Shop-Rite kiosks even have the money to issue change, that is. Finally, don’t get me started on these self-service checkout machines insisting goods be placed into plastic bags just the way the machine likes it. It’s almost as if they have a self-aware sense that Machinekind will someday inherit the Earth by discouraging my use of an environmentally-conscious reusable shopping tote bag today.

No, this was a Safeway self-checkout kiosk. Surely I’d be safe here, and nothing would go wrong. Besides, even when something has gone wrong with the self-checkout machines at other supermarkets, there was always a human who–eventually–corrected the situation when it was explained to them.

One Bottle, Two Bottles

I scanned my loyalty card, proceeding to scan first one bottle of refreshe Apple Cider sparkling water beverage, and then a second. As I was doing so, the machine stamped out a second 50 cent off coupon. “Good!” I thought, because I could just use that instead of the one folded up in my pocket from earlier that day.  Finally, double-checking that I have met all of the requirements of the coupon (as I understood them), I scanned the coupon. It rang up as being 1 cent off, whereupon shortly thereafter it charged the 1 cent back on again.

At this point, I was still holding the coupon with a slightly dumbfounded expression on my face. I’ve seen this sometimes at Self-Checkout kiosks that only apply the discounted savings after you are finished checking all of your items in (I don’t like this behavior, either, Shop-Rite). I was still hopeful of getting another 49 cents off, or 50 cents off, or whatever the accounting came out to be, even though at the moment the preview of my receipt showed $2.12 (including the 6% sales tax we pay in Maryland).

There was a woman standing watching over all of the machines, there usually are. At some grocery stores its not an attendant but a security guard. I think in those retail stores, he’s there more to deter shoplifting than provide customer service. But here there was a seemingly-knowledgable and trained Safeway woman who told me to put the coupon in the little disposal slit. This is a very important feature of Self-Checkout kiosks that prevent you from “double-spending” your coupons. The coupon must be incinerated, never to be seen again!

Believing that I would get my 50 cent discount as soon as I dispatch this small slip of paper to meet its fiery fate, I cast it into its own hell.  Nothing happened.  I still owed $2.12. I paid, and resolved to take my matter to the Customer Service desk at Safeway, where surely reason would prevail.  I mean, if I had done anything wrong, surely the machine or the woman attending the machines would’ve pointed it out by now, rather than being coy and falsely-reassuring just until Safeway got my $2.12 out of my hands.

The Machine Is Always Right

I explained my situation to the woman at the Customer Service desk, a position I imagine Safeway employees rise to by being increasingly knowledgeable and having more training.  I just wanted the 50 cent discount under which I paid for the transaction honored, what could be wrong with that?

You’re Not Allowed to Use a Coupon The Same Day

The woman at Customer Service was very sharp, and recognized what had done wrong immediately.  “You’re not allowed to use a coupon you received today. You have to come back another day to use it.”

I’m looking at my other instance of the coupon’s fine print, and find this stated nowhere, only as I point out to her that it says it doesn’t expire until September 24, 2016.  Nor did the Self-Checkout machine ever indicate this to me, instead taking-off a penny, only to add that penny back to my total.  What ledger-demain?

She confidently asserted that “The system is designed to prevent you from doing that, and that’s what it did.” At no time did she seem to see the value in, I don’t know, maybe the machine could have shown me a message saying the coupon isn’t valid today, for these reasons. I could’ve understood (and not wanted to buy the second bottle since it was sold to me under a false impression of what I’d have to pay).

Your Dollar Tomorrow Is Worth More Than Your Dollar Today?

The other facet that perplexed me about Safeway’s handling of my complaint with their Self-Checkout machine’s behavior was that, they want me to come back in the future to buy a liter of refreshe sparkling, naturally-flavored water beverage, but they don’t want to encourage customers to do that today.  I wanted to explain the net-present value of a $1 to this woman, but I saved my breath. It should nonetheless be, of greater benefit to Safeway to receive $1 in sales from a customer today, than $1 in sales at a future date, because that $1 today can earn (meager) interest, if nothing else. The $1 in future sales is worth less than $1 in sales today.

How Humans Can Still Sabotage Their Machines’ Learning

Rather than taking this incident as a learning experience to improve the Self-Checkout machine to be more customer-friendly in the future, the Safeway employees stood behind their Self-Checkout machine’s (what I might call “greasy,” “underhanded,” or “non-transparent” to say the least) behavior 100 percent.  She said I was completely at fault, and the system did exactly what it should have to prevent me from receiving a 50 cent discount that apparently I could’ve had tomorrow.

At Safeway it seems, the machine is always right.

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