My local grocery store has self-checkout lines. These were introduced about three decades ago but I almost never use them. This is partly because I do not like to feel that I may be contributing to the elimination of jobs for cashiers and partly because while it is fine for reading bar codes for items, it is a nuisance when I buy unpackaged fresh produce that requires me to weigh the item and then press the correct code identifying the item. The cashiers do this much more efficiently. In addition, over time you get to know the cashiers and can engage in pleasantries with them. But I sometimes wonder whether I am some kind of closet technophobe and should use them more.
But this article says that self-checkouts are not good for the workers nor the stores nor customers.
In 2018, just 18% of all grocery store transactions went through a self-checkout, rising to 30% last year. Walmart, Kroger, Dollar General, and Albertson’s are now among retail chains testing out full self-checkout stores.
That’s not something we should get excited about, says Christopher Andrews, a sociologist who examined the kiosks in his 2018 book, The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. Despite what grocery stores and kiosk manufacturers claim, research shows self-checkouts aren’t actually any faster than a regular checkout line, Andrews says. “It only feels like it because your time is occupied doing tasks, rather than paying attention to each second ticking away.”
Neither have they reduced the need for workers: despite the increase in self-checkouts, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the number of cashiers employed in the US has remained virtually the same over the last 10 years. And any reduction in low-wage workers has been offset by the need to pay technicians to maintain the kiosks, Andrews says – and the kiosks can cost as much as $150,000 for a single row.
Andrews says his research has found that the majority of people don’t actually want self-checkouts. The real reason stores use them, he says, is because their competitors do. “It’s not working great for anybody, but everybody feels like they have to have it. The companies think: ‘If we can just convince more people to do this, maybe we can start to reduce some overhead.’”
Meanwhile, self-checkouts have become a prime target for fraudsters, who use a variety of tactics to beat anti-theft measures. Weight sensors can be defeated by ringing up expensive items – like king crab legs – as cheap items like apples. James, the cashier in Washington, says he saw a customer trying to buy a $1,600 grill for $5 by hiding one item inside another and switching the barcodes.
Monitoring these self-checkouts to prevent fraud turns out to be a thankless task for the person assigned to that role.
That includes 25-year-old James, head cashier at a large Washington state store, where he’s worked for four years. He says running the self-checkout has become one of the most tiring parts of his job, which pays just a little more than minimum wage.
Customers often take out their frustrations on him. “This should be your fucking job, not mine,” he recalls a man snapping at him recently. “I said, ‘Sir, no one’s forcing you to come to self-checkout. If you want a cashier you can go to register three.’”
James is required to surveil an uninterrupted stream of up to four customers at once – “like a shark with blood in the water” – as they struggle with the scanner and touchscreen, and sometimes try to shoplift. “You’re confined to that little place, and you’re pretty much standing in one spot for up to eight hours a day, which just kills your feet. And having to deal with so many people just drains your mental battery,” he says.
Author Andrews says that customers can kill self-checkouts by refusing to use them. So it appears that I am doing the right thing.