Aldi customer check-out is far from lean…

Aldi Edgbaston

This bright and shiny new Aldi store recently opened close to where I live. Having never shopped in Aldi I thought that it looked nice, was very convenient, and has a reputation for good value, so I decided to give it a try for my weekly groceries.

I was very pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately their shopping trollies need a coin to use, but since I didn’t have coins I decided to use a couple of baskets instead. Although the number of stock items (SKU’s) is relatively small compared to other supermarket chains, and despite the absence of usual brands, I found that the prices were VERY good, and I enjoyed finding new types of food and alternative brands. However, when I got to the check-out things started to go wrong…

Being a fairly organised and logical type of man, when I shop I arrange my trolley to position heavy things at the bottom, group similar items like canned foods, frozen foods, vegetables, bakery items, etc and then organise the check-out belt in similar fashion for ease of packing. In most supermarkets this makes it easy to pack my shopping after it has been scanned by the check-out operator. But after I had placed all my items on the belt at Aldi, and then went to the check-out point, I found that their check-out design has nowhere to pack your shopping, and that the operator whizzes items through at high-speed. This caused chaos. I couldn’t pack in time with the operator, there is no space for goods to be placed after scanning, and both myself and the operator started getting irate with each other. The operator told me that I shouldn’t pack at the till, and should place my items back into the trolley (which I didn’t have) and take them to a separate counter for me to pack in bags.

This service process seemed strange to me. It felt both unusual and against all my training in Lean methodology, which aims to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. I know that multiple handling is wasteful, so the idea of taking shopping out of a trolley only to put it back into a trolley, and then take it out again to pack in bags seems clearly wrong. Over the next month or so I tried shopping at Aldi a number of times, carefully observing other shoppers at the till, and steadfastly refusing to follow the preferred Aldi checkout process, which is not explained to customers, and which I felt clearly was flawed from a customer-experience perspective. I also checked out customer comments on the web and found that I am far from the only customer frustrated by this element of Aldi’s service design – see: The Weekly Gripe

Over the last few weeks I wondered if this is good service design (because it helps minimise number of staff and therefore overhead costs), or bad service design (because it is inefficient and time-wasting for customers). As a service designer I understand the trade-off between staff efficiency (therefore operating cost and its effect on prices) and human-centred, emotionally rewarding process design. In this case which is right? As a customer should I accept the Aldi check-out process and get what is considered excellent value-for-money, or should I shop elsewhere? So this week I decided that I would try to adapt to their process and see how it feels…

Ouch! Shopping in the way Aldi wants me to shop was even more frustrating than I thought it would be. Not only is it necessary to load your trolley whilst shopping, it is necessary to unload onto the check-out belt; reload into the trolley (at the very high speed operators throw things through the bar-code scanner, meaning its impossible to organise goods properly ); but then un-load them onto a separate counter in some sort of order so they can be packed again, this time in bags. This is far, far from lean in practice, being both time-consuming and frustrating for the customer!

As a result I have decided to only make small purchases in Aldi. This way I will avoid having a trolley, and with only one basket it is easier to pack my bags at the till, although I suspect the operators, who are only doing as trained and measured to do, will probably still get angry at me; and I will steadfastly refuse to “hurry-up” as instructed. Is this a win-win or lose-lose situation? I get some of my shopping at a good price with a level of inconvenience I can tolerate, but Aldi loses my big shopping trips and any chance of word-of-mouth recommendation to family and friends…

What do you think? Is it good or bad service design? Should Aldi keep this design or change it?  Please leave a comment…

James Rock

DesignThinkers Group

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