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The first self-checkout machine was installed in 1986 at a Kroger in Georgia. At first, the clunky machines brought customers hopes of efficiency, convenience, and shorter lines. For store owners, they meant fewer cashiers to pay. Now, almost 40 years later, they’re sleeker and fairly ubiquitous: 96 percent of grocery stores have self-checkout lanes, according to The Food Industry Association (FMI). They’ve even made their way to drug stores and the airport gift shop.
The kiosks have given the phrase “unexpected item in the bagging area” a universally understood meaning. It’s usually followed by “help is on the way,” coupled with customer frustration. Somehow self-checkouts have continued to take over supermarkets despite many customers’ general dissatisfaction with them.
There still remains a preference for human interaction at checkout. A report from FMI shows that while 60 percent of transactions still go through cashiers, only 30 percent go through self-checkout. (The other 10 percent is going to "express lanes.") And according to a survey by the self-checkout company Raydiant, a quarter of respondents said that they wouldn’t use a self-checkout because of past bad experiences. And a whopping 67 percent said self-service checkouts have failed them.
My local Whole Foods in Brooklyn replaced nearly all of its traditional checkout lanes with self-checkout kiosks, and now those have a very long line. Before the switch, I always gravitated toward the lines with actual cashiers. To me, a trained cashier can scan items, key-in PLU codes, and properly bag groceries to avoid broken eggs and smashed bread much faster than I can. Add a malfunctioning bar code to my self-checkout experience, and the time I spend checking out could double.
But still, the Raydiant data shows that 85 percent of people say self-checkouts are faster. Is the do-it-yourself mentality—one where you also avoid social interaction—creating an illusion of speed?
“I personally like self-checkout because I can just do it all myself,” said Kaitlin Sonday, an employee at Target. During her five-and-a-half years at the store, she has held several different roles, from the beauty department to the cash register.
“I think self-checkouts are the new wave of the future,” she added. “It gets people through faster with little interactions, less demand to staff for cashiers so companies can use that money for other priorities, and they are smaller than checkout lanes, which creates more space for self-checkout areas.”
We Are All Cashiers Now
In 1988, it was reported that using self-checkout reduced a store’s cashier costs by 66 percent, according to CNN. Decades later, shoppers are doing the work of cashiers for free amid inflation and soaring grocery prices.
Self-checkouts are just one form of self-service. It’s all part of a larger trend of substituting paid labor with the unpaid labor of consumers, Christopher K. Andrews writes in his book, The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. When we think of self-service, we conjure images of computers and robots, but this isn’t a recent phenomenon. Andrews traces developments in the self-service economy from postcard vending machines and cafeterias in the late 19th century to ATMs in the '80s.
In 1916, Clarence Saunders founded Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, which offered customers lower prices in exchange for shopping for their own items. At other store, customers would give their orders to employees who would retrieve their items. Piggly Wiggly changed all that by asking the customer fill their own baskets. That seems pretty old fashioned compared to grocery stores today, where we not only shop for our groceries, but check them out ourselves, too.
More recently, shoppers have complained about getting prompted to tip at self-checkouts, as The Wall Street Journal reported. It's led consumers to wonder who, exactly, they are tipping for good service if they are doing all the bagging? Chances are, the tips collected at the kioks are not even going to employees. As the Journal story says, "protections to tipped workers in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act don't extend to machines." A tipping researcher told the newspaper that tipping in self-service settings "exploits the high adherence to tipping norms as a way to generate more revenue for the company."
While consumers don't paid for ringing up their groceries, self-checkout does make theft much easier. We’re advocating shoplifting, but it's widely known that it's easier to steal at self-checkout. Data from Auror, a retail loss prevention platform, shows that 39 percent of thefts in grocery stores happen at checkout, according to Grocery Dive.
Sonday, the Target employee, documents her experiences at work on TikTok, and some of her videos show the products customers try to steal. “There is a lot of theft in general, but I definitely think self-checkouts as a whole in any store has made it easier,” she said.
Theft at the self-checkout has become so prevalent that people have coined terms for different hacks, according to The Atlantic. The “banana trick” involves ringing up an expensive item with the code for a cheaper one, such as bananas. Or you can simply take the sticker off a cheaper item and put it over the barcode of a pricy one to do what’s called the “switcheroo.”
With all the theft at self-checkout, the labor cost savings of the kiosks must outweigh the profits lost—otherwise why have them?
But scamming grocery stores could get more difficult as companies create new technologies to prevent theft. Toshiba used computer vision technology to make a camera that detects unscanned items and flashes a message if you skip one, according to Grocery Dive. Other developments in self-checkout technology can identify specific fruits and vegetables to make sure the right PLU codes are being scanned.
Over the years, several stores have had reckonings with self-checkout. Insider reported that Walmart is removing self-checkout lanes from three of its stores, which sparked speculation that self-checkouts could be on their way out. Data from FMI shows that while self-checkout increased significantly in 2018, it's leveled off since then. A spokesperson from the Walmart Press Office told me that there aren’t any plans for the nationwide removal of the kiosks.
Other stores have also ditched the machines for cashiers, but not for reasons like theft or costs, but for more human interaction. In an effort to create a more personal experience, Albertsons removed most self-checkouts from stores in 2011. Then, eight years later, the chain started bringing them back, according to Grocery Dive. Recently, The New York Times reported that Booths, a grocery chain in England, is removing the kiosks in all but 28 of its stores because employee-customer interaction makes for a better experience.
Whether you’re chatting with a cashier or talking to your barista, human interaction might cost you a bit more time, but there are a lot of benefits. This year, NPR reported on several studies that link even casual interactions with strangers as valuable to our well-being, happiness, and health.
Beyond grocery stores, other forms of self-service like kiosks of all types and ATMs are everywhere. While Raydiant found that 60 percent of people prefer self-checkout, we might be fooling ourselves. How often have we asked to speak to a representative when we call a support number instead of the AI voice at the other end of the line?
And while technology might pose a threat to jobs, Andrews argues in his book that it’s our willingness to perform unpaid labor that allows businesses to replace employees with consumers. So under the illusion of efficiency, we’re all just doing work for free.
We can try to do everything ourselves, but why? We’re not getting paid, grocery prices keep rising, and we’re probably a lot less happy.
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