A Self-Checkout That Customers Love? This Company Created It.

Finally… A self-checkout experience that’s worth checking out!


“I can’t wait to use that self-checkout machine,” said no one, ever.

When they were first rolled out in 1986 at Atlanta-area Kroger grocery stores, self-checkout machines were hailed as a “revolution in the supermarket.” Gradually, the technology made its way into other retail environments, shifting workloads from paid employees to unpaid customers – and generating frustration in checkout lanes across the country.

Decades later, self-checkout is more loathed than loved by consumers, with over two-thirds having experienced problems while using the technology. Yet, against this backdrop, there’s one company that’s created a self-checkout experience that customers want to use and even rave about. The company is Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing manufacturer/retailer — and how they accomplished this seemingly impossible feat offers important lessons for all businesses.

In their quest to invent a better self-checkout terminal, Uniqlo focused on a key source of customer frustration: the effort required to scan every item (without triggering errors that would require flagging down a store employee). At Uniqlo’s self-checkout, there is no need to hunt for and scan the bar code on every purchased good. You just toss all the apparel you’re buying into the self-checkout machine’s container bin and, miraculously, all of your items are automatically scanned.

Behind this magical self-checkout experience lies a decidedly low-tech solution – radio frequency identification chips (RFID) that are embedded in every Uniqlo price tag. The self-checkout machine is equipped with an RFID reader that can – with remarkable accuracy – detect and record the price of all the goods tossed into the checkout bin. Compared to item-by-item scanning, this is an effortless experience. (Watch this video to see it for yourself.)

Seventy percent of Uniqlo’s customers (and up to 90% in some markets) choose to use the store’s self-checkout terminals. And rather than grouse about them, these customers love them. Indeed, these self-checkout machines have become a signature element of the Uniqlo store experience – finally fulfilling the decades-old promise of self-checkout by offering not just a better customer experience, but delivering it at a lower cost.

No matter what business you might be in, there’s much to learn from Uniqlo’s approach to self-checkout:


Don’t confuse shifting effort with reducing effort.

Lots of companies focus on making it easy for people to do business with them, creating a so-called “effortless” customer experience. That focus is well-placed, as numerous studies have shown that low-effort experiences help turn more sales prospects into customers, and more customers in loyal fans.

The problem is that what many companies celebrate as a reduction in effort actually turns out to be more of a transfer of effort. Self-checkout is a perfect example: Labor is not being reduced, it is merely being repositioned (from the employee to the customer). Customer experience “improvements” that just shift a burden from staff to patrons aren’t improvements at all.

That’s the beauty of Uniqlo’s self-checkout solution – it is demonstrably easier. No smoke and mirrors required, no reality distortion needed. Customers can feel the difference, and they like it.


Sometimes the best technology isn’t the latest technology.

It’s human nature that we are drawn to shiny objects. In the business arena, that often means getting captivated by the latest, cutting edge technology. Let’s face it, AI is a lot more glamorous than RFID. However, when it came to reimagining Uniqlo’s in-store experience, that old (and notably inexpensive) RFID technology proved its mettle.

Yes, you should have a healthy respect for new technology – but don’t get drunk on it. Sometimes, the most significant customer experience improvements can be enabled through the simplest technology. Keep an open mind and don’t disregard IT solutions that might, on their face, appear boring and dated. As Uniqlo discovered, those solutions could prove to be your smartest technology investments.


Give customers the power of choice.

There’s actually another company that has bested Uniqlo’s impressive 70% self-checkout rate, and that’s Dollar General. In the past couple of years, the discount retailer has seen a 100% self-checkout usage rate at some of its stores. How did they achieve that? They eliminated staffed cashier lanes as part of a pilot program (which obviously makes their achievement a lot less impressive).

Forcing customers to adopt a new technology is rarely the right answer. (Dollar General has since backed off on its self-checkout pilot after observing an increase in shrinkage-related losses from things like shoplifting and unintentional missed scanning of items.) When customers are compelled to do something because no alternative avenues exist, it robs them of their sense of control. The resulting loss of agency makes them feel worse about whatever experience they’re going through. Uniqlo recognizes this and wisely gives its customers a choice of self-checkout or staffed cashier lanes.

With most any new customer experience innovation (technology-enabled or not), the key is to earn adoption. The moment you start forcing customers down a certain path, it’s that much more likely that they’ll resist the change.


Strive for “how did they do that?” moments.

Uniqlo’s new self-checkout experience isn’t just effortless, it’s downright magical. For anyone who’s not familiar with RFID technology, seeing the Uniqlo machines in operation can’t help but create a sense of surprise and mystery: How did that self-checkout terminal just scan all of my purchases?

Presuming a customer’s basic needs are being met, “how did they do that?” moments can create a peak in the experience that materially influences how people remember the encounter. (From a different industry, another example is how front desk staff at luxury hotels greet newly arriving guests by name. Trade secret: the bell person radios it to them in real time, after glancing at the traveler’s luggage tags.)

Technology, applied creatively, can trigger these surprising moments, as can the subtle capture of information that enables an unusual level of personalization. However it’s accomplished, injecting a little “magic and mystery” into the customer experience not only makes it more memorable, but it leads people to talk up the encounter with others.


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Uniqlo has created a self-checkout experience that’s worth checking out – not just for the innovation they brought to the market, but also for the strategy they used to accomplish it. It’s a paradigm that should help inform any customer experience innovation effort.  Follow Uniqlo’s lead, and you might find your customers raving about your business in similarly surprising ways.

[A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com.]


Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth.  Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed keynote speaker, as well as an advisor to some of world’s foremost brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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