The Real Reason Costco Will Never Have Express Checkout Lines

In a perfect world, you could hit Costco on your way home from work, find a parking spot right next to the door, run in, grab a rotisserie chicken for dinner, breeze through the express checkout line, and be back in your car in 10 minutes flat. But there are a two problems with this fantasy scenario: First off, you never find parking right next to the door, and secondly, there are no express checkout lines at Costco, and, as it turns out, there never will be. 

You have to admit that the Costco checkout lines are pretty efficient — they've got it down to a science by now. But for those of us you can enter Costco's labyrinth of bargains and proceed to the registers with only three items, well, even that super-efficient checkout process can feel like it takes an eternity when you're stuck behind a few customers with overflowing shopping carts. Consumer Reports posed this scenario to Costco CEO Craig Jelinek, and asked why the store doesn't have express lines. "Costco's ability to sell merchandise at incredibly low prices is based on adhering to various operating disciplines at every turn," Jelinek explained. "Instead of having an express line — that often would be open but without a member in line — we have invested millions of dollars to speed up the entire front-end process. Our policy is 'no more than one (member) in line and two (members waiting) behind.' The average completed front-end transaction is just over 1 minute." 

Now, that's all well and good, Mr. Jelinek, and as we said, the checkout process is pretty efficient, but we would love to know which Costco location you're frequenting, because just two members waiting and a 1-minute per transaction average sounds like a dream come true. In fact, that sounds like an express line. But hey, if not having a five-items-or-less lane means that those prices stay jaw-droppingly low, who are we to complain?

Now that our dreams of ever having a Costco express line have been dashed, what about self-checkout? Self-checkout can be convenient, especially if you've only got one or two items, but Costco tried self-checkout in select stores back in 2010, and by 2013 that dream was dead, too. Why? Jelinek told Bloomberg Businessweek (via Business Insider) at the time, "They are great for low-volume warehouses, but we don't want to be in the low-volume warehouse business." His employees do the job better than the customers themselves, he explained, which actually sounds about right when you think of how often those machines tell you you've put an unexpected item in the bagging area, even though there is nothing but air in the bagging area. According to Fierce Retail, a Costco source reported, "Our members [processed] per hour went up, from 50 per hour to 60 per hour [with the removal of self-checkouts]." Efficiency aside, there was also a matter of merchandise loss, with one store showing a $60,000 loss over a six-month period, all of which was attributed to the self-checkouts. 

But in 2019, during the third-quarter conference call, RetailWire reports that Richard Galanti, EVP and CFO, said that Costco is testing self-checkout again in about 125 stores across the country, with plans to increase that number to about 250 of the company's 536 U.S. locations. Galanti explained, "It's very fast and customers are using it. Our members are using it. And it's saving some labor at the front end. As important, on the highest volume units, it's getting people through the front end faster." 

This seems a bit contrary to Costco's typical attitude, as the company really does seem to care about its employees, and treats them as part of the family. And when you introduce self-checkout, you're essentially proving that you see those employees "as a cost to be minimized," Zeynep Ton, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told Bloomberg Businessweek. But with competitors like Sam's Club and B.J.'s pulling the trigger on self-checkout, Costco no doubt feels the need to step up. No word on whether or not self-checkout is limited to a certain number of items per customer, but if you get behind someone with an overflowing cart, you might want to rethink your choice.

More good news is that the warehouse store has at least started accepting mobile payment, which definitely speeds up a transaction (though we're still not sure about that 1-minute per customer average). As of August 2018, Costco customers can pay with Apple Pay, Google Wallet, and Samsung Pay at all U.S. locations.

One more point for Costco? The company rolled out self-serve digital kiosks in their food courts in early 2018, a move that drastically reduces the wait time for your $1.50 hot dog combo, and also allows you to use mobile pay or a credit card, which previously wasn't an option when you ordered your lunch — if you didn't have the cash, you were out of luck.

So while the bulk-buy paradise doesn't seem to be against installing technology in the name of efficiency, Costco is definitely against its employees sitting at an express line register with no customers queued up. Plus, how often do you really make it out of there with only that rotisserie chicken?