Helping supermarkets to see self-checkout as a service


With the rapid increase in self checkouts, supermarkets are struggling with high levels of theft at automated tills. Our clients started with a question, “How can we re-design supermarkets to decrease theft?”

Through collaborative workshops with various participating European supermarkets, we re-framed the brief, to ask, “How can we improve customer experience, host-wellbeing, and take a more user-centred approach to the self checkout experience?”


Understanding that most of the particating supermarkets were new to user-centred design and user research, we took a generative research approach which could focus on developing inspiration for future research and design projects.

Our methods included interviews with shoppers, immersion visits where we shadowed hosts on-the-job, and interviews with staff across all levels of these organisations. This data could help us to understand the different ways users experience self-checkout, learning behaviours as well as understanding attitudes about needs and pain points associated with the process.

Because we were researching across Northern England, London and Brussels, it was important to create a robust framework which we could apply across fieldwork visits, to help us compare and find themes across these diverse retail contexts.

Working in the context of crime, we also borrowed upon criminology frameworks such as 25 techniques of situational crime prevention, particularly during ideation and analysis.


The research showed us that petty theft at the self-checkout is often a result of shopper frustration and host’s feeling overwhelmed. While using self-checkout, shoppers face issues finding signage and taking in written information around them. There are frequent breakdowns in communication between shoppers and hosts which cause problems with payment verification and issues scanning. We saw how these issues played out and effected host well-being, the shopper experience and unfortunately, levels of theft.

“No one realises there’s a difference between cash vs. card-only tills until they’ve scanned their whole basket.” - A supermarket host

Through our research, we also learned more about the organisational processes that effect the delivery of these products and services. Hosts were rarely asked how new products and systems were worked, let alone asked to test them before anything was changed, improved or implemented. We had learned through our own work how valuable hosts' experiences can be to the design process.


Through synthesis and working closely with our clients throughout the process, it became clear there was a need to map the user journey so that these organisations could start to understand self-checkout as a service. We also saw a need for distinguishing how different shoppers and hosts experience the journey and developing problem scenarios. Rather than “solve” the problem, we focused on creating a framework for future research, design and delivery.


Mapping the user journey and facilitating an evidence-led approach to understanding self-checkout as a service was “transformative” for our clients. The ability to walk oneself through the user journey helped innovation and retail leads to see retail in a new light. With an understanding of how touchpoints relate to one another, we helped our clients to frame self checkout as a service rather than a product.

The impact of this project was high-level, it was about encouraging new ways of working. Organizational shifts require a lot of collaboration, and time. In terms of impact, so far we’ve seen at least 2 of the participatory retailers have started building out their design and research teams. When the final report was presented to the wider retail community, we saw an overwhelmingly positive response.