Josh Freed: Is self-checkout really more convenient for anyone?

Having machines take over from humans ironically means humans doing a lot more work.

Article content

I was at the supermarket last week but only needed one item, so I used self-checkout, which I never do for large orders.

I prefer the human expression on a cashier’s face to the blank gaze of a self-serve screen. Besides, I’m not the world’s best scanner, or bagger when I’ve got 33 grocery items.

Article content

My bags look like they were packed by kindergarten kids and I fumble with the vegetable scanning codes.

Advertisement 2

Article content

“Hmm, is this coriander, or cilantro? — and geez, what’s the word for turnip in French?”

Still, when I only have a few items I don’t mind playing cashier. But this time the receipt got stuck in the slot and the whole machine jammed, so a young staffer named Marian hurried over, wearing a “Can I help you” T-shirt.

After she’d solved the problem we started chatting and I asked her if there were many self-checkout losers like me. She laughed and said:

“Almost everyone needs my help! At least 60 — probably 70 per cent — of customers need assistance and they’re all ages and backgrounds, because…”

She never finished her thought, because suddenly she sped off to help a mom with a baby carriage, fumbling to locate the right code on a bag of oranges.

Returning my way, Marian listed other common problems.

“Mostly it’s fruit, meat and veggies where most people make mistakes with codes. Today, we have a special on grapes and everyone scans them wrong because you have to punch in the code, then scan the item — and no one does.

“So as soon as I see anyone with grapes I go help — like that guy there. Hang on!”

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Marian’s not alone in these opinions. A recent article in Atlantic Magazine was headlined: “Self-checkout is a failed experiment.”

It cites problems like decades of technical bugs, scanner-challenged customers and aggravating screen messages like:

“Unexpected item in the bagging area. (Beep!) … Please place item in the bag. (Beep!) … Please wait for assistance.”

There are also huge, rising shoplifting costs from customers who think they deserve payback for Do-It-Yourself cashier work.

As if to compensate for these thefts, some machines now reportedly ask for tips, only upping the man vs. machine conflict.

Customer backlash In Canada and the U.S. has recently caused several chains like Costco to reduce self-checkout at some stores, while Walmart adds more helpers to service their self-service machines.

There are other problems, adds Marian, during rare seconds she’s not scurrying around troubleshooting.

“People leave baskets on the counter, or need my authorization to buy alcohol as an adult. The printers jam — there’s often one or two broken — it’s crazy.”

Advertisement 4

Article content

Many people are also slow baggers and scanners unlike trained cashiers, she adds, clogging queues until she rescues them.

“People think machines are faster than cashiers but they’re not. I don’t know why so many people use them.”

Big stores obviously install the machines hoping to reduce employee costs, but many end up hiring more Marians to babysit them. Also, IT repair specialists who charge way more than fired cashiers.

But once stores spend a fortune on machines, they’re unlikely to remove them and admit failure.

Still, the big question is: why do we customers agree to work as free cashiers?

I made a documentary about lineups several years ago and talked to top line-up experts, who still cite the old queue rule: “Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time”.

When we’re kept busy we think the experience is faster, even if it actually takes longer. So we’re more relaxed in restaurants once we get a menu to browse, even if we already know what we’re having.

That’s also why supermarkets have lengthened many cash register counters, so customers will feel occupied, unloading their groceries.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Similarly, self-checkout machines make us feel we’re saving time, even if studies show they take as much or more time as using a cashier.

When I mention the “occupied time” rule to Marian, she says: “That’s true! That’s exactly why I like this job, I’m so busy every minute that time seems to fly.” Then she hurries off to help a blue-haired guy wiggling some bananas at the scanner, as if solving a Rubik’s cube.

I have other laments when using these machines. I miss the brief exchange with cashiers where we trade some words, or just smiles, in a world with fewer human interactions and ever-more robotic ones.

I don’t like helping companies replace people who need a salary to survive. Overall, many service experts say these machines don’t make sense, but self-checkout has just become self-perpetuating.

For now, I mostly use real cashiers to help keep them working. But my local Pharmaprix is fighting back against holdouts like me.

They recently made it mandatory to pay cash at the lone human-staffed aisle. To pay with a card, you must now use self-checkout machines.

So the irony is, in order to deal with a human at Pharmaprix, I have to get cash … from their ATM machine.

[email protected]

Related Stories

Article content


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

    Advertisement 1