Self-checkout lanes became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the lack of cashier-to-customer contact.
And it’s not just grocery stores that have us scanning and bagging our own purchases. Home-improvement stores and discount-store chains such as Target, Walmart and even Costco are among those businesses where you might find self-checkout offered.
No question, self-checkout is not for everyone. My beloved late mother-in-law would rather stand in line for an actual cashier no matter how long she had to wait. But I’m always in a hurry, and I appreciate being able to ring up my own purchases and speed back out to my car.
That said, self-checkout isn’t intuitive to many people. Since I worked my way through part of college as a supermarket cashier, scanning and bagging are still second nature to me. And I can tell you, both from my cashier years as well as my recent experience, there are dos and don’ts for self-checkout.
Here’s a look at some of the things to avoid if you want to glide in and out of self-checkout quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
1. Don’t try to check out with too much stuff
If you’ve got an overstuffed cart of groceries that could feed a football team, don’t use self-checkout. Once you scan an item, you need to set it down, and very few stores have a huge bagging platform for checked-out items.
You don’t want to try and balance a jar of pickles on top of a bag of cookies, only to smash the cookies and break the jar.
Many self-checkout areas post an item limit, but it’s not always prominent. If you’re buying more than a dozen or so items, stand in line for a cashier.
2. Don’t forget to enter your rewards number
Many chain stores encourage shoppers to sign up for some kind of rewards club. You’ll get lower prices on items, and the store learns what you buy frequently, and may send you personalized coupons.
Your rewards number is usually your phone number. Cashiers are practiced at asking for it, but in self-checkout, you’ll need to type the number in yourself. Forget to do so, and you may find you’re not getting the cheapest prices.
3. Don’t forget about attached coupons
Some products come with an extra deal – a peel-off coupon attached to the container. (I often find these on canned soda 12-packs and kitty-litter packages.) Be sure to take these coupons off before you scan the item.
Hold on to them until you’ve rung up all of your items, when the machine will ask if you have any coupons. You should be able to scan the coupon’s bar code and deposit it in a provided slot. Call the self-checkout attendant if you have problems with a coupon.
4. Don’t scan too quickly
Scanning the bar codes on each item is pretty simple. But if you have a pile of similar items — gravy packets, maybe, or small cat-food cans — you may be tempted to zip them across the reader rapid-fire.
The machine usually can’t handle that, and reacts by refusing to recognize the latest item. Give yourself a breath or two between items: It’ll save you time in the end.
5. Don’t ignore specific payment warnings on the machine
Some self-checkout machines are only set up to take credit or debit cards, while others have slots for cash and coins. Don’t waste time scanning all your groceries at one machine only to learn you don’t have the correct payment.
Yes, some self-checkout machines even accept personal checks, depending on your store, but they will need to be approved by an attendant.
6. Don’t repeatedly scan a barcode that’s not working
Barcodes are just a series of black lines of various thickness, with a sequence of numbers beneath the lines. Sometimes, the part of the label showing the barcode tears, smears or folds over on itself.
Of course, busy shoppers rarely spot this until they’re standing at the checkout machine.
Call the attendant — usually, they can hand-enter the barcode for you. Scanning a damaged barcode over and over does nothing.
7. Don’t skimp on bags
It’s better for the environment to bring your own bags, of course. But if not, you may be charged for using bags from the store — it depends on the laws of the state you’re in.
If you’re asked how many bags you’re going to use, don’t underestimate. It’s better to pay an extra nickel or so for one extra bag than to try and cram too many heavy items into one bag. It will rip, and at the worst possible moment.
8. Don’t pack poorly
Bagging your own purchases isn’t difficult. If you have a paper bag, open it all the way and fill out the bottom with solid items, such as cereal boxes and canned goods.
Save crushable or fragile items for the top of the bag. Think about whether some items (gallons of milk, large bags of chips) really need a bag at all.
9. Don’t leave a mess
Respect the other shoppers who are coming behind you. If you used a shopping basket, see if there’s a place to stack it out of the way. If you have a cart but aren’t taking it to your car, park it somewhere out of the main walking lane.
Should you decide you don’t want an item, especially food, don’t just leave it teetering near the checkout where it can melt or go bad — let the attendant know you changed your mind.
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