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The majority of supermarket staff managing self-checkouts say they ‘cannot cope’ with the number of machines they oversee, according to a major new study of more than 6,000 workers. The survey also found a third of self-checkout supervisors receive verbal abuse from customers several times a week.

The survey – conducted by the University of Leicester on behalf of ECR Retail Loss – found 84% of self-checkout supervisors surveyed believed one to six machines per member of staff to be the optimum ratio. However, the largest proportion (38%) were expected to manage seven or more machines.

As a result, close to two-thirds felt overwhelmed by the number of machines assigned, and said they could only cope when stores weren’t busy.

The study also found a correlation between the frequency of violent and verbal abuse incidents and the number of machines respondents said they had to supervise, with those looking after more machines more likely to encounter abuse.

“While correlation does not equal causation, it would seem likely that as staff members have to deal with a greater number of machines and associated alerts and problems, levels of customer frustration are also likely to grow, which in turn could spill over into violence and verbal abuse,” said report author Adrian Beck, an emeritus professor at the University of Leicester.

The most common task of self-checkout staff was conducting age-related checks, followed by removal of security tags.

The surveyed staff reported non-scanning of items to be the most frequent misuse of checkouts by customers. This was followed by scanning items but leaving without paying for them, and customers misrepresenting one product for another, usually via the product look-up screen.

“For each type, about one-third of respondents believe they are happening on an hourly basis or more frequently,” Beck said.

On average, respondents believed that 51% of all self-checkout losses were caused by malicious customer behaviour.

To counter this misuse, most store staff said the most effective technological intervention would be some form of non-payment alert. But an “almost unanimous” majority believed simply having more staff working on the machines would be the most effective way of reducing self-checkout losses.

Supervisors responding to attempted theft by customers using the machines often led to abuse, Beck said.

“One of the early selling points of self-checkout was the way in which it could enable retailers to markedly reduce their labour costs,” the study notes. “Given that labour costs are the second-largest line of expenditure for a retailer, this is clearly an attractive proposition, especially when early reviews of SCO suggested that associated losses were minimal. In many retailers, this created a minimal possible staffing operating model – what is the least amount of labour we can deploy to make SCO deliverable?”

The report states that self-checkout related losses “may be growing considerably” as they become more ubiquitous and consumers become more aware and confident around the “opportunities it provides for misuse”.

“It would seem, therefore, that retailers need to move on from a minimal possible labour model to one focused upon creating an optimum control labour model where SCO spaces have sufficient staffing levels to deliver a manageable zone of control,” the report continues.

Nine retailers were involved in the study: four supermarkets in the UK, two in the US, two in Australia and one in mainland Europe.

“Above all, the research has highlighted how important people are in this process,” said Beck. “But if they are to be successful, they must be given a manageable workload, receive high-quality training, be supported with technologies that help them to focus upon the customers, transactions and events that matter, and operate in a space that is well designed, and above all, enables a zone of control to be maintained.”