Sam’s Club: Unleashing my self-checkout beast

I’ve been realizing that I’m a sucker for memberships, such as Sam’s Club, AAA, Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and more. They convince me that their low monthly membership fees are easily affordable if I just skip a cup of coffee or two and that their benefits will definitely outweigh any costs. But are they really worth it? Or are they just taking my money and running.

Last week I talked about AAA, and while I got annoyed at the second half of my recent AAA experience, overall I determined that their membership pays for itself over time. Their annoying regulations about what they can pick up where really made me question whether this was the best option over time when there are other roadside assistance services out there. The AAA name, the travel discounts, and the simplicity of their basic process (so long as you understand the ancillary rules and fine print) keeps me with them.

Sam and I, we go way back

Another long-term membership I have held is with Sam’s Club. My parents had a Sam’s Club membership when I was younger, and I took full advantage of their bulk purchasing powers during my college and graduate school years. Mom and Dad would load me up on bulk foods for my refrigerator and pantry for months. I was never really a ramen guy in college, but those little snack packets of peanut butter and crackers and frozen pasta salad and Hot Pockets in bulk kept me alive through law school.

I celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary this year, and one of my first acts as a married man was joining Sam’s Club in Kansas City. When we were young and married, we laughed because we called Sam’s the “$100 club” because as a young couple, watching our pennies, we could not seem to get out of Sam’s for less than $100. Sam’s somehow activated the impulse purchase mindset in us. We would purchase things that were beneficial but not necessary simply because Sam’s offered them. Over the years, we have learned to fight this urge, but the novelty of the selection at Sam’s Club is still pretty amazing sometimes.

Sam’s Club selection has consistently worked out for me

Over the years, I have bought anything and everything at Sam’s Club. Besides the variety of bulk foods of all kinds, we have bought a few beds, a steam cleaner, fertilizer for our yard, chlorine for our pool, office chairs, bedroom furniture, a printer, a flat-screen TV, a bread machine (back when those were all the rage), a blender, an incredible rack-based free weights set that has lasted me forever, and all kinds of other handy and helpful items. Their selection has rarely failed us. Oh! And their fuel prices are the best around!

Sam's Club checkout

The bustling checkout area at my local Sam’s Club

At Sam’s, we also buy clothes and vitamins and discount books and commercial-grade skillets and larger-than-natural rotisserie chickens. The options are never-ending. Add to all of this that Sam’s Club has an automotive department — yes, we’ve bought a few sets of tires from Sam’s — as well as an optical department and pharmacy and travel discounts and more, and it gets a little boggling how they do it all.

Self-checkout and the Sam’s app

But recently, I’ve become a bigger Sam’s Club fan thanks to their embracing technology. They started rolling out self-checkout a year or so ago, and it’s very convenient. It skips the slow “weigh your items as you go” process that I have hated at Wal-Mart’s self-checkout. Instead, the Sam’s Club self-checkout has simply been a handheld scanner checkout process followed by payment. It’s been quick and convenient. Even better, the staff members there at the self-checkout sign off on your receipt to get you out the exit door quicker.

Over time, I have found the Sam’s Club app for my iPhone a great help.  I can search my local Sam’s Club inventory and I can dig around or find items that I didn’t even know that Sam’s has available.  Over time, the Sam’s Club app (and the Wal-Mart app, for that matter) have been regularly-used apps on my phone.

I recently saw Facebook ad that encouraged me to download the new Sam’s Scan and Go app. It promised that I could scan items in the app, pay for items in the app, and leave the store without going through a checkout line. I downloaded the app and promptly forgot about it.

The moment the Sam’s Club Scan and Go app changed everything

A few weeks later, I was at Sam’s and the checkout lines were backed up. Every once in a while, it seems our Sam’s has credit/debit processing delays. (I have learned that apparently all merchant card processing runs through servers in Bentonville, not at the local store level, so if there’s a slowdown at Sam’s headquarters in Arkansas, it affects everyone.) Checkout was taking forever.

Sam's Scan and Go app

The Sam’s Scan and Go app is promoted on the front doors of my local Sam’s Club

As I started to get impatient, a friendly Sam’s employee stopped by with a handheld scanner device. She told me that she could scan all of my items in my cart, store them under my membership number, and then when I got to the checkout register, it would already be input into the system as soon as they swiped my membership card. How convenient and helpful! She scanned all my items and moved on.

In that moment, I remembered the Sam’s Scan and Go app I had downloaded to my phone. Since I was still several customers away from the actual checkout register, I decided to try out this technology. I opened the app and set up my membership ID. Then I scanned all the items in my cart with my phone’s camera. I input my credit/debit card information into the app, and paid. Done! The app displayed a scanner code to show the receipt-checking lady at the door. I literally stepped out of the backed-up shopping line and walked to the door. I felt like a total rebel who just hacked the system. At the exit door, the staff member there used a device to scan the code displayed on my phone screen, and I was out the door, leaving the lines behind.

I have used the Sam’s Club Scan and Go app many times since, and the experience has been trouble-free.  I shop, I scan each item as I put it in my shopping cart, and then I just walk toward the exit door and pay on the way there with the app’s checkout process.

Sam’s Club has the technology, but is there a downside?

That, my friends, is a membership benefit. Before that day, I thought the Sam’s self-checkout process was great. But, seriously? I can just scan my items myself, pay on the spot, and walk out without waiting to even check out? Finally someone gets it. And, yes, I will pay a membership fee to a company who makes my life that simple and hassle-free.

I will acknowledge the challenges and potential problems of this system. First, I have to store my debit/credit card in their app. I never like doing that due to security concerns. I personally prefer to enter numbers on each transaction, although I guess that’s really no more secure. But from a basic consumer comfort level, after the Target RED card hack, I’ve been very leery of storing my credit/debit information with a retailer.

Second, ultimately the advent of self-checkout lowers Sam’s labor costs, which in plain English means, they hire fewer employees to do the same work. That results in fewer available jobs for people who need them and are willing to work. I have heard from Sam’s employees over time that some customers are totally against the idea of self-checkout because it reduces the total number of people hired by Sam’s. (One Sam’s employee who works the self-checkout lane says she takes her life in her own hands every time she works that spot because people come up and accost her over how she’ s putting Americans out of jobs). I understand that concern, and I’m not sure how to solve that particular problem, but I’m not sure labor arguments will win out of technology conveniences in the long run.

Third — and I acknowledge upfront that this sounds petty — you still have to wait in the exit line at Sam’s even when you use the Scan and Go app. They have this wonderfully convenient app to skip the register lines, but then you still have to wait in this very manually-processed line to exit the building. Staff members are counting the number of goods in your cart to confirm it matches your receipts as you exit the building, and Sam’s has not yet figured out a way to get over that process and keep things moving. It’s odd, though, to use this wonderfully convenient app process and then go stand in a line to exit.

What we can learn from this Sam’s Club experience?

What from a business perspective can we learn from all this? Customers love convenience. Convenience does not always come in the form of advanced electronic technologies. I understand that the older generation is probably not using this app, and they would probably prefer other conveniences. But the general rule is that customers love convenience. We all like it when things move along a little faster, when finding what you want is simpler, when making your purchase is one step easier, when making your way through a store is unobstructed and a quick in and out. If we can streamline processes and keep things simple for the customer, the customer will be happy and will want to use our store/site/product more.

All in all, I am very satisfied with my Sam’s Club membership. Their bulk pricing, their breadth of products and services, their discounted goods, the ability to get in and out pretty easily, and now the convenience of not only being able to self checkout but to actually app checkout — I’m sold. And the membership price is not too high and is easy to pay year over year for the benefits I get in return.

What about Costco?

By the way, some of you may be wondering why I’m not comparing Sam’s Club to Costco. The reason is that I have no Costco experience because we don’t have one in our area. I know that the Sam’s vs. Costco question is something people have, but I can’t help in that area. I can only speak to Sam’s Club, and my experience with Sam’s Club has been very positive over the years. It counts as a win in my book and is a membership that I will keep.

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