OWhen the first self-checkout kiosks were rolled out in American stores more than three decades ago, they were touted as a technology that could help stores reduce costs, save customers time and even prevent theft.
Businesses are still worried about these issues, and in the face of a tight labor market, more companies are making self-checkouts the norm. This week, Walmart revealed theft in its stores is at an all-time high, which many employees and customers associate with self-checkouts. But not only did the machines fail to deliver on their promises; they made it harder for just about everyone, including the workers they were supposed to replace.
That includes James, 25, a head cashier at a department store in Washington state, where he has worked for four years. He says running the cash register has become one of the most tiring parts of his job, which pays little more than minimum wage.
Clients often vent their frustrations on him. “This should be your fucking job, not mine,” he recalled of a man who recently stalked him. “I said, ‘Sir, no one is forcing you to come to the cashier. If you want one cashier, you can register three.
James must watch an uninterrupted stream of up to four customers at once – “like a shark with blood in the water” – as they wrestle with the scanner and touchscreen, and occasionally try to fly at the ‘display. “You’re confined to this little place, and you’re pretty much standing in one place for up to eight hours a day, which is killing your feet. And dealing with so many people drains your mental battery,” he says.
In 2018, only 18% of all grocery store transactions went through a self-checkout, up from 30% last year. Walmart, Kroger, Dollar General and Albertson’s are now among the retail chains testing full self-checkout stores.
It’s not something we should be excited about, says Christopher Andrews, a sociologist who examined kiosks in his 2018 book, The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. Despite what grocery stores and kiosk makers claim, research shows that self-checkouts aren’t faster than a regular checkout line, Andrews says. “It’s only because your time is occupied with doing tasks, rather than paying attention to every passing second.”
They haven’t reduced the need for workers, either: Despite the increase in self-checkouts, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of cashiers employed in the United States has remained virtually the same over the past 10 years. . And any reduction in the number of low-wage workers has been offset by the need to pay technicians to maintain the kiosks, Andrews says — and kiosks can cost up to $150,000 for a single row.
So if self-checkouts are so inefficient, why do we have them?
Modern supermarket self-service policies have largely been “imposed by businesses, not because customers demanded them,” says Andrews. Prior to the 20th century, shoppers typically purchased goods directly from clerks standing behind counters. That changed in 1916, when Clarence Saunders opened the first modern supermarket: a Piggly Wiggly in Texas where customers were asked to pull items off the shelves themselves – and given a discount for doing so.
In 1986, a handful of Kroger stores installed the first self-checkout machines, which cost $5 million to develop. The contraptions, called CheckRobots, required customers to scan items and place them on a conveyor belt before a human employee packed them at the other end. Donald Dufek, vice president of Kroger, admitted that the system was actually slower than traditional checkouts. But “if the customer feels and thinks that this payment method is faster, he is satisfied to get out of the store faster,” he told reporters at the time.
Andrews says his research found that the majority of people don’t really want self-checkouts. The real reason stores use them, he says, is because their competitors do. “It doesn’t work very well for anyone, but everyone feels compelled to have it. Companies think, “If we can just get more people to do this, maybe we can start cutting some overhead.”
Meanwhile, self-checkouts have become a prime target for fraudsters, who use a variety of tactics to circumvent anti-theft measures. Weight sensors can be defeated by switching expensive items – like king crab legs – to cheap items like apples. James, the Washington cashier, says he saw a customer try to buy a $1,600 grill for $5 by hiding one item inside another and changing the barcodes.
This has led to something of an arms race, with some retailers responding with increasingly stringent measures. Walmart is known for its aggressive pursuit of shoplifters and has installed AI-powered cameras near its self-checkout areas with a “missed scan detection” feature. “It turns what’s supposed to be a leisurely shopping activity into a quasi-TSA, airport-style security checkpoint,” says Andrews.
Measures like these have met with contempt from workers’ rights advocates. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than one million retail workers, said that “a well-equipped store with well-trained employees who check on customers is the simple and smart solution”.
Instead, Perrone says, retailers like Walmart have increasingly sought to use self-checkouts to cut jobs and boost profits.
A Walmart spokesman, Charles Crowson, declined to comment on the company’s self-checkouts, but said the retailer “continually explores effective ways to protect merchandise, keep prices low and provide a safe environment. to the millions of customers we serve every week.”
Kiosks pose problems beyond theft. Self-checkouts are often inaccessible to people with reduced vision or people in wheelchairs, who complain of having to report to a cashier each time they use the computerized kiosks. The National Federation of the Blind sued Walmart in 2018 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by “barring people who are blind from using the service as intended — independently and privately,” though a federal judge ruled in favor of Walmart last year.
Checkout screens could also pose a threat to your health, according to a recent study by the UK-based Infection Innovation Consortium which took samples from a selection of everyday objects. “Self-control samples had one of the highest bacterial loads, as we found five different types of potentially pathogenic bacteria surviving on them,” lead researcher Dr. Adam Roberts said in a statement. “It included Enterococcuswhich is found in human faeces and although it is usually harmless it can of course lead to illness, especially in those who may have a weakened immune system.
Could we ever see a world without self-checkouts? Yes, if customers refuse. “Companies are looking for creative ways to reduce labor costs, and if they can find a way to convince customers to do more work, they will,” says Andrews. “I tell people to vote with your wallet. I went to my local supermarket the other night after work and filled my basket. The staff said to go to the self-checkout – and I just left. Because my thought was, ‘I’m not going to sit here and scan 60 articles. It’s just not worth my time.