Self-checkouts not adding up

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It seems that the rise and rise of technology is not the inevitability it was once thought. Not too long ago, the introduction of self-checkouts in stores and supermarkets was touted as the next step in modern shopping, a hassle-free, quick, and smooth way to transact your business, not unlike bank ATM’s which have certainly been a hit with customers.

But, recently, there has been a marked disillusion with the technology, as more and more major box stores and supermarkets are deciding to remove the machines from their premises and go back to staffed checkouts instead. Some of the companies reviewing their commitment to self-checkouts are Canadian Tire, WalMart, and Costco. Shoppers Drug Mart is also reconsidering using the machines, and it is not only in Canada where this is happening. Booths, one of the largest pharmacies in the U.K., is also pulling self-checkout from virtually all of its stores, and many box stores in the U.S. are doing likewise.

There are a few reasons for this retreat from the technology. One is the growing amount of what the companies call “shrink”, loss of stock through deliberate or inadvertent theft. Two studies in the past few years found that retailers across the globe estimated that as much as 23% of their store losses were due to a combination of theft and customer error at self‑checkouts. An American study found that 15% of 2,000 people surveyed admitted to stealing while using self-checkout machines, while 21% had accidentally taken an item without scanning it.

Some of that “shrink” phenomenon is caused by the technology itself. In spite of what some might think, the technology is not perfect, and some machines misread the barcodes on items, for various reasons. Stores such as Canadian Tire make the point that many of the larger items they sell, from snowblowers to microwaves, don’t lend themselves to scanning at the machines. 

Where customers are aware of not paying for goods, it is often the case that they either don’t realise that the scanner hadn’t registered their purchase, or they couldn’t get it to read the barcode and simply put the item in their bag out of embarrassment or frustration. Trying to check out fruit or vegetables, for example, has been a major headache at times, particularly where there is no barcode on the item. Customers find it confusing to find the precise vegeitable or fruit on the machine’s menu, or else they misidentify the thing themselves. The frustration and embarrassment this causes puts them off having to use self-checkouts in the future.

There has also been an issue of customer anger at being forced to use the machines because of the absence of actual human beings at traditional checkouts. One retail analyst has noted that: “I think when customers feel they’re being forced into something, it builds up resentment. I don’t think self‑checkout’s going to go away entirely, but I think we’re going to see a lot of retail swing back into a more balanced choice for shoppers.”

Self‑service machines were first introduced to lower the cost of paying employees. Instead of hiring actual people, the stores made the customers do the work themselves. During the pandemic, many shoppers used self‑checkout for the first time to minimize close interaction with employees and other customers. But there has been a rethink owing to the issues raised by the machines. Staff are still required to monitor the machines to ensure they are being used properly and to deal with irate customers who are having trouble scanning their purchases. “Unexpected item in the bagging area” is all too often the signal for delay, confusion, and the need for a staff member to intervene and restore normal service.

But, at the same time, surveys in the U.S. have shown that people have very ambivalent attitudes towards self-checkouts. Although a large majority of those surveyed (75%) believe technology-based interactions have led to a decrease in social skills, a majority (66%) also think that technology reduces their social anxiety and would use a machine even if a human clerk were available. In the end, it is likely that the future use, or removal, of self-checkouts in stores will be determined by whether companies make or lose money on them, and not on the feelings, ambivalent as they are, of their customers.

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