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Self checkout’s ambiguous future

Headshot for Richard Smoley.

You wouldn’t think a price scanner would elicit strong emotion. But in fact, that increasingly common feature of the retail experience—the automatic self-checkout machine —has incited some intense opinions, both for and against.

If you read the trade press, you get the impression that retail self-checkout lanes are the future. Progress marches on relentlessly: soon (allegedly) self-checkout will be standard practice.

Marion Chan, owner of TrendSpotting Consulting in Toronto, says, “It is inevitable, like any technological change.”

Do retailers like self-checkout? Yes, overwhelmingly, according to a study by Mike Giblin, director of research for the Loss Prevention Research Council, and Laura Lasko, senior corporate investigator for Wakefern Food Corp.

Fifty percent of retailers surveyed said that the benefits of self-checkout (SCO) outweighed the disadvantages, while 43 percent said that it “somewhat” did. Retailers who had the technology used it in 59 percent of their stores. Eighty-six percent of retailers surveyed agreed with the statement “Self-checkout is a critical factor in my companies [sic] strategy for the future.”

Why do retailers like SCOs? For one thing, they cut labor costs. Giblin and Lasko give the figures for a typical store: a $12 per hour labor rate for clerks, with 1150 hours worked per week, amounts to a weekly labor cost of $13,800, for 22,000 transactions processed.

If 4 SCO terminals are installed, cashier hours can be cut to 780 hours per week, with a new labor cost of $8,760. A weekly savings of some $5000 can amortize the cost of the machines in a couple of years.

Even for retailers, there are drawbacks to SCOs. Retailers surveyed by Giblin and Lasko estimated a 21.7 percent increase in shrinkage as a result of the new devices. After all, it’s a lot easier to swipe things when no human being is looking at you. Interviews with confessed shoplifters indicate that SCOs make it easier to steal because there’s less employee oversight, they’re closer to the exit, and they provide a faster getaway, among other advantages.

Consumers’ opinions about SCOs are mixed. Many shoppers use them. According to Giblin and Lasko, they account for 29 percent of sales in stores that have them. And a survey conducted in December 2018 by SOTI, a company specializing in the Internet of things, 73 percent of consumers said they were “in favor of self-service technologies to improve the retail shopping experience and reduce staff interaction.”

Others scoff at the devices. Writing in Gizmodo, Brian Merchant calls them “everyone’s favorite cluster of machinery to walk past in the grocery store with a dismissive scowl, to hold off approaching until you’ve finally, painfully decided the line you’ve been stuck is so painfully not-moving it’s worth the hassle.”

Citing Keedoozle—the improbably named first attempt at a fully automated grocery store, dating back to 1937—Merchant derides this trend as “Keedoozlification.”

It’s easy to believe that an automated store dating back to FDR’s second term might not have had all of its flaws worked out. But Merchant is not alone in assailing this latest trend toward automation. Produce is one item of contention.

Sophia Harris, writing for Canada’s CBC News website, quotes one customer as saying about self-checkout, “Whenever I’ve tried to do it with more than a few items or produce or a baked good, I’ll have to get another staff member for help. It just doesn’t seem like it’s saving anyone time.”

In his 2018 book The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy, Christopher K. Andrews of Drew University doubts that self-checkout “has measurably improved the price or quality of the goods they purchase or their overall lifestyle.”

He argues that this is simply the latest example of a trend of shunting off paid labor (clerks) to unpaid labor (consumers), contending, “Perhaps the biggest reason Americans feel overworked is because of the increase in self-service and unpaid work.”

Some customers resist SCOs because they believe that the devices will lead to job losses for clerks. This is not necessarily the case. In a study entitled AI in Context: The Labor of Integrating New Technologies, Alexandra Mateescu of the University of Chicago and Madeline Clare Elish of Columbia University write: “Despite the ebbs and flows of self-checkout’s popularity, its effect has been similar to that of ATMs on bank teller jobs: while individual bank locations began employing fewer tellers, banks also began to open more branches, thus increasing the total number of tellers countrywide. Similarly, the total number of cashier jobs in the US has actually increased, and most self-checkout areas in stores are monitored by an attendant.”

Business continues to frantically search for the answer to the great question: what does the customer want? The answer appears to be that customers want different things. For some, making small talk with a clerk in a checkout line is pleasurable (especially for older people living alone, who may not have much other human interaction in the course of a day), while others find it a nuisance. Harris quotes a shopper who says that self-checkout cuts down on “unneeded chit-chat,” adding, “I’m shopping. I’m not there to make friends. I like to get to the machine that does the job and just go.”

For produce shopping, automated checkout seems likely to push toward more packaging as well as labeling for larger individual items (whether with stickers or with laser-engraving technology, like one that is making its debut in Austria).

It’s also likely to militate against the traditional purchase by the pound method: if professional clerks have trouble coding produce accurately at the register, you can only expect that untrained customers will be much worse.

To look at it from a larger perspective, the SCO looks very much like a transitional technology along the lines of VCRs. They represent a halfway step toward automation, which in its full-blown form will probably more resemble Amazon’s new Go stores, in which you scan items with an app and have the cost charged to your Amazon account.

In fact, to speculate wildly, the ultimate step will probably be a universal shopping app, where you purchase any item in any store with your phone and have it automatically charged to your bank account. It’s not hard to imagine someone becoming a billionaire by developing such a product.

But what about human interaction? It’s likely never to go away, simply because people need it. In the future, you may have stores in which everything is automatically scanned and charged, but which will have employees standing around specifically to chat with old ladies who need the company.


Richard Smoley is Editor with Blue Book Services Inc.