Self checkouts are to be avoided

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.


  1. Rup says

    I use them always as here they are only for people who have a few items and are in a rush . For example, maybe it is your lunch-hour and you have to get back to work on time.

    Otherwise, the wait in a normal cash-till can be excruciatingly long behind people who have trolley-loads of stuff.

  2. Rup says

    And I don’t think it causes people to lose Jobs here.
    The supermarket has notices out looking for staff constantly. They never have enough staff.

  3. Rup says

    Andrews claims standing is bad f or you but so is sitting for eight hours a day. It plays havoc with your intestines, for example.

  4. marner says

    I agree with Rup that depending on the number of items you have and how busy the checkers are, self-check can be significantly faster. Other variable include the quality of the checkers and how quick you are.
    Everything being close to equal, I have always chosen the checker to support the workers, so it is encouraging to see some evidence that self-checkout is not replacing workers. Not sure I believe it, though. At the least, I would expect they depress checker wages.

  5. billseymour says

    The store where I do my grocery shopping has six self-checkout stations, three of which don’t take cash.  In my experience, I don’t have to wait in the self-checkout line nearly as long as I do in the other line, although that could be in part because I tend to shop at times when the store isn’t very busy.

  6. Allison says

    I avoid self-checkouts because they are a huge pain. I have never been able to go through a self-checkout without having it page for a clerk to correct something, and since they are overworked, you have to wait. Sometimes several times during one pass through the self-checkout.. There are also a number of things you can’t buy in self-checkout. And they have only gotten more of a pain. Now it frequently complains that I haven’t put something “in the bag” when I have. So I always use the checkout with a clerk, and it always goes smoothly.

    And, yeah, I don’t like the idea that they want to get rid of clerks, though it doesn’t actually do that. It also seems to me like it’s another example of how capitalism wants to keep people isolated from one another, so that all their interactions go through impersonal corporate entities.

  7. maggie says

    I started using the self checkout at the grocery store during the pandemic. Too many of the store cashiers didn’t wear masks and I found the self checkout stations were less crowded and were sanitized after every customer. Otherwise, I don’t really like them.

  8. says

    …the wait in a normal cash-till can be excruciatingly long behind people who have trolley-loads of stuff.

    That’s become a far worse problem since grocery stores stopped hiring enough cashiers to fully man all of their checkout stations. My Safeway has about 10-12 old-school checkout stations, but there’s never more than three of them actually manned and operative at a time. That’s just one way they try to force people to use their newfangled labor-killing-saving “convenience.”

  9. larpar says

    “…over time you get to know the cashiers and can engage in pleasantries with them.”
    That’s one of the things that slows down the line. I do that at the convenance store, but only after checking to see that no one is waiting behind me.
    I’ve run into occasional glitches using the self-checkout, but most of the time it goes pretty smoothly. My biggest problem has been not being able to find the barcode. Pro-tip, check the bottom of the package. : )

  10. cartomancer says

    I much prefer the self-checkout process, because I find talking to strangers anxiety-inducing and stressful. I am constantly feeling that they will judge me for my purchasing choices, or that I am wasting their time and they’d really rather I wasn’t there. So being able to buy things without running the gauntlet of unwanted social contact is very useful for me.

  11. John Morales says


    Raging Bee, better to use ‘staff’ and ‘staffed’ than ‘man’ and ‘manned’.

  12. billseymour says

    cartomancer @11:

    I much prefer the self-checkout process, because I find talking to strangers anxiety-inducing …

    I know the feeling.  I probably lack the full set of social skills myself.

    And probably because of that, I actually like doing stuff for myself and not having to interact with strangers.  I also like bagging the groceries the way I want them bagged.

  13. johnson catman says

    re billseymour @14: When my wife and I do our shopping, we use the cashier lines and we also bag our own groceries. If you bring your own bags, nothing stops you from doing your own bagging, and you can bag the groceries however you please.

  14. Rup says

    What emerges from this discussion is that self-checkouts are operated differently in different countries. In some places, it seems that customers are ‘abandoned’ to their own devices. Not so, in mine, however. There is an area of four checkouts, supervised by an assistant, who is always there, so you never get stuck. There are indeed certain items that you can’t punch in yourself (newspapers and magazines, for example which do not have a bar code), but the assistant deals with those immediately. As I have said before, they are only used by people. who have few items (usually max 10), and mainly by people who do not have the time to wait in long queues. I have never seen a person try to pass through them with a trolley-load of goods. They accept cash and cards. Someone mentioned wheelchairs. I can’t remember having seen anyone try to use them in mine, but judging by the way it is setup, it would not be absolutely impossible, or perhaps a bit tricky, and the assistant could always help if need be.
    I don’t think they have an affect on people’s wages here. As I have already said, my supermarket has a problem to find staff and this would only be exacerbated if they dropped wages. The problem is not wages here; it is that no-one wants to work on Saturdays or Sundays.
    As I see it, depending on your desire or not for social contact, they are an extra to the normal cash-tills, not a replacement for them. No doubt, they could be improved or substituted by something else, but they work pretty well.

  15. Rup says

    I passed by my local supermarket this morning to grab a coffee and a briosce. The coffee is excellent and it is.not expensive: .€1

    Whilst there , I had a bit of a chinwag with the assistant at the self-checkout. I wanted to ask if wheelchairs.could.use the system
    She told me.that not only could they use the system, several already do.

  16. lochaber says

    I like the idea of self-checkout stations, but, in my limited experience, they have been executed really poorly. Granted, they’ve gotten slightly better in the past decade or so since I first tried using them, but they are still pretty bad.

    I think they’ve mostly addressed the issue with using your own/no bag, this caused me a lot of trouble on my first attempts.

    The restricted items that need some sort of approval from an employee… Yeah, I get it’s necessary for like, alcoholic beverages and such. But, why the hell even have self-checkouts in home depot, when ~50% of that store’s inventory isn’t applicable for self-checkout (markers, paint, solvents, tools, etc…

    And then there is my general objection to how we are using automation as a society. Anybody remember “The Jetsons”, or any pre-80’s imaginations of what the future would be like? It used to be that people thought of automation as a way to reduce the number of hours the average person would have to be laboring to earn a living wage. But, I guess that’s just not fair to the billionaires…

  17. lochaber says

    stating that you talked to someone who said that they saw people in wheelchairs use self-checkouts is not in any way a disputation of what WMDKitty — Survivor@5 brought up.

    “Self-checkout is also NOT designed for use by those in wheelchair”

    Already, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that most wheelchair users use a whole hell of a lot of stuff that isn’t designed with their needs in mind. Just because they manage to compensate doesn’t make it a non-issue.

  18. Dunc says

    I expect that back in 1916, a lot of people made similar complaints about the idea of having to go around the shop collecting your items yourself… How many people would rather go back to the previous system of giving your shopping list to someone behind the counter? Although it does offer more opportunities for comedy

  19. Rup says

    I am not saying that what I wrote contradicts what WMDKitty — Survivor@5 said. Indeed, I am surethat wheelchair users often have to make the best of situations which are not designed for them. However, I did not say that I talked to just anyone who said that they saw people in wheelchairs use self-checkouts, I said that I spoke to the actual assistant at the self-checkout who confirmed thjat the system was designed to let people in wheelchairs use it, albeit I am personally convinced that it is not the easier thing to do.

  20. Rup says

    A bit off topic, but I have to say that John Morales comment: “Raging Bee, better to use ‘staff’ and ‘staffed’ than ‘man’ and ‘manned’” makes me think of the recent decision, for PC reasons, by the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) to announce amendments to the Laws of Cricket to use the gender-neutral terms “batter” and “batters”, rather than “batsman” or “batsmen”.

    But if we’re going all PC with cricket terminology, what happens to ‘maidens’, ‘third man’, ‘bunny rabbit’, ‘Chinaman’, ‘duck’, ‘flat-track bully’, ‘jockstrap’, ‘Michelle’ (5-for),’Nelson’, ‘Nightwatchman’, ‘Dropped a Dolly’, ‘Twelfth Man’, ‘whites’, & ‘full toss in the crease’?

    Just a thought.

  21. sonofrojblake says

    Self-checkouts infuriate me. I’d like to bury the inventor of them alive in a coffin with a tinny speaker that just repeats the phrase “unexpected item in bagging area” at unpredictable intervals between 5 seconds and 5 minutes.

    If I’m buying alcohol, a knife, glue, or any other thing likely to need verification, I don’t even bother trying to use the SC till.

    I’ve also found that an effective technique for speeding things up when there are problems is to simply abandon the transaction and move to the next SC till, and repeat until I (a) find one that isn’t fucked or (b) an assistant comes over and makes the fucking thing work. My record so far is seven SC tills unusably left halfway through a transaction before someone employed to do this shit finally came over and sorted out their technology. Sorry, those people behind me, complain to the store. (If you’re in a small store and run out of SC tills to leave half-finished… just leave. Leave the stuff on the till and just go. There are other stores.)

  22. Molingus says

    I shop for Instacart, and I always, always, always use self checkout sometimes for orders with over 100 items. I know having 2 shopping carts of stuff is frustrating for those in line behind me, but the fact is, no matter what I’ve tried, I can’t count on there items to get bagged properly. And poor bagging is the cause of so many customer complaints, which impact the quality of orders Instacart offers us. And if a customer reports their steaks and crab legs didn’t get delivered, I know for a fact it wasn’t a bagging mistake.

  23. rockwhisperer says

    Given that by the time I’ve acquired a full cart of groceries, my very wonky knees are giving out and I can barely stand. Managing the self-checkout process is just more difficulty and opportunity to lose my balance. And so, if the wait at the regular checkout stations aren’t horrible, I’ll use them. The wait is seldom a problem at my favorite grocery store, though I try to avoid peak shopping times, and of course, all bets are off right before major holidays.

    My not-favorite grocery store, which carries some items I use regularly that the favorite one does not, ALWAYS has long lines at the staffed stations. And so, when I shop there, it is only for those few items. My body isn’t complaining as much at checkout time, I use the self-checkout, it’s an in-and-out experience. But what that means is that the store with better support for regular checkouts gets most of my business.

  24. says


    I’m a full-time wheelchair user, and they are designed in a way that abled people *think* is “perfectly usable” but frequently is not for the actual end user. If I, say, use my card to pay, I have to lean on the checkout area to even reach the slot and pin-pad. The registers do NOT like that “unexpected weight”.

    I have a lot to say about the ADA standards and how they’re implemented (or not) — starting with my “compliant” bathroom at home.

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