11 thoughts on “Robots of the Week: Replacing Cashiers in Grocery Stores and Cafeterias”

  1. Won’t they just put mini RFID chips in all product packaging soon? Seems like that would be more likely to succeed than object recognition AI sofrware.

  2. For grocery stores, problem with vegetables and fruits…anything not packaged.

    For cafeterias, don’t see how you’d do it with RFID chips unles you had everything served out in separate containers, each with its own RFID chip.

  3. I bet that before too long they’ll have stick-on RFID chips for produce.

    I’m skeptical that optical object recognition can really get close enough to 100% reliability to be good enough. I don’t know how close it would have to come to be acceptable to retailers. I assume 99% or better. That will be tough.

  4. The IMAGR system actually puts the intelligence in the shopping cart, so I’d guess it can narrow down what is being put in the cart based on where in the store the cart is located.

  5. That makes sense–there is lots of additional information they can leverage. That does lead to the question of what about people who just pick up a single item, those who use baskets, etc.

  6. May need a single human cashier, or maybe a conventional self-checkout station, for these cases.

    Also, it strikes me that if the automation *knows* when it is having difficulty identifying something, the image could be routed to a human who could set it straight promptly…the human would not need to be in the same store.

  7. Yes, well, automatically calculating a confidence metric that can be used like that, with a small number of false positives but also a reasonably small number of false negatives, is another very difficult aspect of this problem. At some point you just accept there will have to be a person in the loop–like how there stores that have self-checkout have a single employee monitoring like 4-8 checkout locations to help out where need be.

  8. My problem with self-checkout is that the systems are designed to detect and reduce theft, not for the convenience of the customer. There is no place to put my purse at the check-out stand so I end up setting it on the scanner/scale which seems to upset the machine which means the clerk has to come calm it down. The scanners are far too close to the doors for me to just set my purse down, even in the cart, as it’s an invitation to theft. The store doesn’t much care, as its my stuff being stolen, not theirs.

    Then, the system requires placing goods that have been scanned on another scale. Then, when I’m done with that, I have to put the stuff in my bags. I end up handling my purse twice – once for the shopper’s card and once for my debit card – and the goods at least twice – once to scan and once to bag – or more, if I have to rearrange to have room for everything on the after-scan scale.

    So when a store manages to figure out a way to arrange all of this that will satisfy me and their antitheft requirements, I might be inclined to use self-checkout but until they work this out, as long as there are cashiers, I will happily stand in line for a minute or two.

  9. The self-checkout systems vary in quality….the ones at Giant are like a science fair projects designed by a kid who got it to sort of work but didn’t have time to finish it up properly. I’m rarely in a Wal-Mart, but the ones there seem a little better. Overall, some attention to user interface and *flow*…the way people actually do things…consideration of the kind of issues you raised…would help a lot.

    A more fundamental problem is dealing with items that are not bar-coded. It takes about 3 levels of menu to get down to Plums or Bananas. An experienced human checker can identify these much more rapidly.

  10. They have them at my local Walmart, at Sam’s Club and at the Lowe’s and the HEB. These last three have a cashier/manager hovering in attendance over about four of them, to expedite flow and solve problems. Which they do, Johnny-on-the-spot.
    The HEB has automated scales with label printers in the produce section – so easy enough to weigh and print out a label in the produce section, if one is going to go through the self-checkout. About the only time I’ll go to the cashier stands in Sam’s and HEB is if I am buying wine, or if the lines at the cashier are shorter. Because someone has to come and verify my age at the self-check-out, which is a bit of an annoyance.

  11. I like the self checkout line because the cashiers don’t know how to bag groceries anymore. The skill degradation is just awful. Bagging is now a lost art.

    Even worse is it’s getting difficult to obtain bags in the first place. There’s a constant threat from our Stalinistic local governments to ban plastic bags, and, although we’ve been granted a reprieve for now, the ecological autocracy seem to have indoctrinated cashiers and clerks in a campaign to strictly limit bags to customers. We walk out of the store carrying overstuffed bags bursting at the seams. And God help us if we ask for our groceries to be double bagged. We’re looked at like ozone depleting traitors, oppressors of endangered species, our faces permanently recorded by the security cameras as enemies of the environment to be immediately scheduled for repeated emissions tests.

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