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Convenience store operators want more shoppers to venture inside their stores for snacks and drinks in addition to fueling up. But the last thing most customers want is to wait in line behind three other people at the cashier.

Nowadays, they don’t have to.

Self checkout lines have been added inside grocers and big-box stores for decades, and their reach is expanding. Last year, almost 200,000 new units reached a variety of retailers globally, including c-stores Royal Farms and Spinx, according to data from research and consulting firm RBR.

But the trend isn’t stopping at self checkout. For example, RBR found checkout-free shops tripled last year.

And consumers seem to be on board. A recent survey from Dover Fueling Systems shows many customers expect gas stations and convenience stores to be contactless and fully automated in 20 years.

Why make these checkout changes? 

So if customers see this as the way forward, why is the tech just getting started in c-stores?

“In my experience it’s not so much the shoppers that are the speed bump here,” said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology. “They’re looking for these capabilities … It’s the retailers who are too slow.”

That doesn’t mean companies aren’t exploring the space. Chains like Wawa have introduced self checkout, while Sheetz has a scan-and-go app and Circle K has rolled out high-speed self checkout machines from Mashgin chainwide. And a variety of outlets are dipping their toes in the water of fully automated stores. 

There are a few reasons these technologies are gaining steam.

“First, of course, is the labor shortage that we’re dealing with,” said Gautham Vadakkepatt, director of the Center for Retail Transformation at the George Mason University School of Business. 

In many cases, labor costs are rising while the price of technology is coming down. “Automation can potentially unlock the next-level of margins in some cases,” Vadakkepatt said. 

COVID-19 has prompted more people to seek out contact-free checkout options as well.

“The ongoing pandemic has presented its own set of unique problems,” added Olivia Johnson, assistant professor at the Department of Human Development and Consumer Sciences at the University of Houston. 

And then there’s the fact that implementing the right automation can make shopping more enjoyable and hopefully less stressful.

“Shopping fundamentally is about an experience, right?” said Vadakkepatt. “You want to be delighted.”

A photo of a Mashgin self-checkout machine.

Checkout technology keeps evolving in an attempt to make shopping trips faster and easier. 

Permission granted by Mashgin


Implementing automated checkouts the right way

Some of these technologies will be a big change for shoppers. 

“We are creatures of habit, and if you want to change habit, you have to educate, you have to inform them, you have to walk them through the process so they’re comfortable,” Vadakkepatt said. 

Most companies should also retain some traditional checkout options, Johnson suggested. Not only can that give them an alternative in case of technical problems, but “this reminds customers of their choice as the company adopts technology.”

There are many things companies can do to streamline the transition.

“Placement is really important here,” said Jack Hogan, vice president of partnerships at Mashgin. ”But on top of that, you want to make sure your staff are acting as ambassadors during the first few weeks.”

And there can be drawbacks. Any retailers thinking of adding automated checkout needs to make sure to understand the new maintenance needs that come with these terminals, sources said. 

Additionally, companies need to factor in what may get lost by having machines replace what has traditionally been a person-to-person interaction. 

“It also represents a lost opportunity to increase the numbers of items sold in a transaction by eliminating a cashier’s ability to recommend additional products,” said Johnson. “Furthermore, these machines don’t protect against theft or inaccurate checkouts.”

Which technology is right?

When thinking about adding one of these technologies to a store, businesses must be thinking about what their stores actually need.

“Don’t just deploy technology for technology’s sake,” said Vadakkepatt. “Are you solving a pain point that customers currently have? … Otherwise you create a different kind of problem.”

Money is another consideration. The different checkout technologies vary widely in costs. And employers may also want to think about the changes in hiring that such changes may require.

“The intersection between retail and technology will become even more important and represent a need for retailers to invest in training or hire more skilled workers,” said Johnson.

A photo of a person using a self checkout machine in a store.

Self-checkout machines are becoming ubiquitous.

Andreas Rentz via Getty Images


So what are the most common checkout technologies for the c-store space?

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