Paying faster: Economic win-win and good user experience

Over the weekend, I went to a grocery store local to my home. Normally grocery shopping is not something I consider a good experience, user or otherwise. I walk faster than the average person, and I don’t like crowds. I’m irritated by not being able to find anything, and the minute I can find everything the store seems to get rearranged (apparently this is to entice me to buy more when I see new and interesting products in the space where the stuff I was looking for was last week, but it doesn’t work — it often means I leave the store without things I had intended to buy because I couldn’t find them).

Over the weekend, though, I left the store with a bounce in my step, because they had introduced something that made my life easier, and got me out of the store faster (and that small improvement was enough to change the whole tone of the visit — being a user experience geek, improved user experience — and therefore things I can blog about — really make me happy).

The usual scenario at checkout is one of three, at most stores:

  1. Stand in a feeder line for one of several express checkouts, where people have usually jammed far more than 15 things into a basket (rather than getting a trolley) to delude themselves that they are entitled to use the express checkout. Then they pay with cash, only it never occurred to them to get their wallets out at any point prior to actually having to pay, so keep waiting while they find their wallet in a large purse or backpack, or in one of their 50 pockets. Not usually so express.
  2. Stand in line for a self checkout machine, and pack your groceries yourself (I spent a summer as a packer, and I can pack into my own backpack, so I actually like packing my own groceries). If you’re lucky the machine behaves for those in front of you (and you) so that you don’t have to wait for a shop assistant to come and make it scan items correctly or deliver the right change (this is risky, so I don’t usually use this line).
  3. Find a non-express line where the person in front of you is nearly done, and check out through there. Even if the person still has 30 or so items, there is only one transaction (and thus one chance for a lost wallet), and it is only the same number of items as two express checkout customers. This is my preferred option at larger supermarkets.

Clearly a large part of my irritation with supermarkets is the time I waste standing in line (I know, I could read the magazines, but I don’t like the ones they have on display, and besides…it feels a bit wrong to read a magazine someone else will take home). So recently at my local Safeway, having taken option 3 and being ready to pay for my groceries with my credit card I looked down at the credit card terminal while I was waiting and noticed something new: I could pre-swipe my card. The screen read “Paying by card? swipe now”, and so I did. I then selected my account, and had my transaction pre-approved — all this while the cashier was still scanning my groceries. This saves a significant amount of time once the groceries are packed (especially, if like me, you can never figure out which way to swipe your card) — all the check out operator had to do was ask me if I wanted cash out, and then, unusually in Australia, the machine accepted the PIN I have on my credit card (instead of forcing me to sign).

This pre-swipe thing saves time in three ways:

  1. Encouraging shoppers to have their cards out ahead of time
  2. The check out operator not having to ask how you want to pay for your groceries (if you have already swiped your card — if you haven’t, they will still have to ask)
  3. The time taken to swipe the card and select the account (not insignificant if the card is being temperamental and/or like me you can’t figure out which way to swipe it.

There is also a fourth advantage, in that it gives shoppers something to do in that awkward time where talking to the checkout operator might annoy them or slow them down, but not talking to them feels rude. The time saving is, admittedly, in the process of grocery shopping relatively small, however, it probably represents a large saving in the time-per-transaction for the cashier (and therefore a labour cost savings for the store). In situations of long lines where people pre-swipe, though, or for those who loathe grocery shopping, this small time saving (and awkwardness aversion) can make a big difference to their experience. This is a win-win user experience improvement — it will save the grocery store money, and may have an impact on consumer impression of the store — I know it has improved my perception, and will make me more likely to use the Safeway that has implemented the system than others that have not.

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4 Responses to “Paying faster: Economic win-win and good user experience”


  1. 1 tony Monday, March 31, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Actually, if you want cash out you can enter that yourself too.

    Now you can just be infuriated because the person in front of you is standing there with their card out not swiping. I’m often tempted to tell them they can swipe now instead of waiting until the end. I wonder why the cashiers never seem to point this out to people?

  2. 2 Rebecca Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    I’m a big fan of the self-checkout machines; I wonder if that’s because I’m a librarian and they make me feel sort of at home …
    However, I find it very difficult to work out where the change comes out, and I’ve watched a series of older people look utterly confused by the process from start to finish.
    Perhaps worthy of a usability assessment on their own?

  3. 3 tony Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    I am always confused about where the change comes out too. Why are coins and notes dispensed from completely different parts of the machine?


  1. 1 ‘Giving back something broken’ undoes all your good work and then some. « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Friday, January 23, 2009 at 5:58 pm

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