Nobody likes self checkout. Here’s why it’s everywhere


If you have experienced these irritating self checkout machine warnings, you are not alone.

“It’s 2022. One would expect the self-checkout experience to be flawless. We’re not there at all,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who researched self-checkout.

Customers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the self-checkout experience. Businesses are also faced with challenges.

The machines are expensive to install, break down frequently and can result in customers buying fewer items. Stores also apply higher losses and more shoplifting at self-service checkouts than at conventional checkouts with human cashiers.

Despite the headache, self-checkout is growing.

In 2020, 29% of grocery retail transactions were processed through self-checkout, up from 23% a year earlier, according to the latest data from the food industry association FMI.

This begs the question: Why is this often problematic, unpopular technology taking over the retail trade?

let customers do the work

That Introduction of self-checkout machines in 1986 was part of a long history of shops transferring work from paid employees to unpaid customers, a practice dating back to Piggly Wiggly – the first self-service supermarket – in the early 1900s.

Instead of vendors behind a counter collecting products for customers, Piggly Wiggly allowed shoppers to roam the aisles, pull items off the shelves, and check out at the register. In exchange for more work, the model promised lower prices.

Shoppers at Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service supermarket, in 1918.

However, self-checkout was mainly developed to reduce the labor costs of stores. The system reduced cashier costs by up to 66%, according to a 1988 article in the Miami Herald.

Patented by Florida-based company CheckRobot and installed in several Kroger stores, the first modern self-checkout system would be almost unrecognizable to shoppers today.

Customers scan their items and place them on a conveyor belt. An employee at the other end of the line packed the groceries. Customers then took them to a central checkout area to pay.

The technology has been heralded as a “supermarket revolution”. Shoppers are “transforming into their own grocery workers as automated checkout lanes shorten long shopping cart lines and reduce store staffing costs,” the Los Angeles Times said in 1987 review.

But self-checkout hasn’t revolutionized grocery retail. Many customers were reluctant to have to do more work in exchange for benefits that weren’t entirely clear.

It took a decade Walmart (WMT) Test self checkout. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the trend began to gain momentum with supermarkets looking to cut costs during the 2001 recession and facing stiff competition from burgeoning superstores and warehouse clubs.
Walmart first tested self-checkout in the late 1990s.

“The rationale was business-based and not customer-centric,” Charlebois said. “Customers hated them from the start.”

A 2003 Nielsen survey found that 52% of shoppers found self-checkout “okay,” while 16% said it was “frustrating.” Thirty-two percent of shoppers called them “great.”

The mixed reaction prompted some grocery chains, including Costco (COSTS)Albertsons and others to pull out the self-checkout machines they installed in the mid-2000s.
“Self-checkout lines are becoming congested as customers have had to wait for store staff to assist with barcode issues, coupons, payment issues, and other issues common to many transactions,” according to grocery chain Big Y said in 2011 when it removed its machines.


The shift to self-checkout also has unintended consequences for stores.

Retailers found that self-checkout stations were not autonomous and required regular maintenance and monitoring, said Christopher Andrews, a sociologist at Drew University and author of The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets and the Do-It-Yourself Economy.
Stores face challenges with self-checkout, including higher theft rates.

Although self-checkout counters eliminated some of the jobs of traditional cashiers, they still required staffing and created a need for higher-paying IT jobs, he said.

Self-checkout, Andrews added, “delivers nothing of what it promises.”

The biggest problem for store owners is that self-checkout results in more losses through error or theft than traditional checkouts.

“If you had a retail store where 50% of transactions were through self-checkout, the losses would be 77% higher than average,” said Adrian Beck, a professor emeritus at the University of Leicester in the UK who studies retail losses .

Customers make honest mistakes and intentionally steal from self-checkouts.

Some products have multiple barcodes or barcodes that don’t scan properly. Products, including fruit and meat, typically need to be weighed and manually entered into the system using a code. Customers can accidentally enter the wrong code. Other times, buyers don’t hear the “beep” that confirms an item has been properly scanned.

“Consumers aren’t very good at scanning reliably,” Beck said. “Why should they be? They are not trained.”

Other customers, taking advantage of the lax supervision at self-checkout aisles, have evolved techniques to steal. Common tactics include not scanning an item, trading a cheaper item (bananas) for a more expensive one (steak), scanning fake barcodes affixed to their wrists, or scanning everything correctly and then leaving without pay.

Stores have attempted to limit losses by tightening self-checkout security features, such as B. adding weight sensors. But additional anti-theft measures also lead to more frustrating “unexpected item in the packing area” errors that require intervention from store associates.

“There’s a delicate balance between security and customer convenience,” Beck said.

Self checkout is here to stay

Despite the many shortcomings of self-checkout for customers and store owners, the trend continues to grow.

Walmart (WMT), Kroger (KR) and Dollar General (DG) exclusively pilot self-checkout stores. Costco and Albertsons brought back self-checkout after removing it years ago. Amazon (AMZN) has taken the concept a step further with cashless Amazon Go stores.

It can simply be too late for businesses to turn their backs on self-checkout.

Amazon has developed cashless Go shops.  Other retailers are trying to jump on the trend.

Today, stores cater to shoppers who find self-checkout faster than traditional cashiers, although there’s little evidence to support this. However, because customers are doing the work and not standing in line, the experience can feel faster.

Store owners have also seen competitors installing self-checkout and decided they don’t want to miss out.

“It’s an arms race. If everyone else is doing it, you look like an idiot if you don’t have it,” said David D’Arezzo, a former manager at Dollar General, Wegmans and other retailers. “Once you’ve let it out of your pocket, it’s quite difficult to stop offering it.”

Covid-19 has also accelerated the spread of self-checkout.

During the pandemic, many customers opted for self-service to avoid close interactions with cashiers and baggers. And challenges in hiring and retaining employees have caused stores to rely more heavily on machines to get customers through the door.


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