When self-checkouts started to appear everywhere a few years ago, I balked at using them, despite the retail industry’s promises of shorter lines and lower prices. Call me a Luddite, but I believed (and still do believe) that this technology puts people out of work. A 2004 article in eWEEK.com’s special report on self-checkouts, “What’s the Real ROI of Self-Checkout?” claims that stores really want human cashiers but can’t get enough workers willing to take the job. The same article says that cashiers displaced by self-checkouts will be diverted to customer service in other areas of their stores. Personally, I find it just as hard to find help in the aisles of stores with self-checkouts as I did a few years ago when all the cashiers were paid, and now I seem to be standing in longer lines than ever to check out.
Despite my reluctance, I have found myself starting to use the self-checkout machines. When the line for a live cashier is six shopping carts deep and my own cart contains two tired and cranky children in addition to the merchandise, the empty self-checkout lanes look very tempting. And strangely, I find that I enjoy scanning my own items. However, about 90% of the time, I still have to wait for help from the person staffing multiple self-checkout lines. Usually the machine refuses one of my coupons; sometimes it just seems to take a dislike to me and refuses to proceed.
If I have a large number of coupons (or any coupons that I know will require an employee’s override, such as a “Buy One, Get One Free” coupon), I don’t even bother with the self-checkout. One day, after waiting for nearly 40 minutes (with coupons in my hand and children in my cart) to pay one of the three live cashiers at a Super Wal-Mart with about fifty check-out lanes, I noticed that nearly all the people in line with me were senior citizens. The woman behind me in line had a walker, which she used to change positions when she got tired of leaning on her cart. I realized that those who would most benefit from the shorter lines promised by advocates of self-checkouts are often those who are the least comfortable using the scanners and checkout screens. In a way, self-checkouts have created a form of generational discrimination – the young and healthy who are easily able to learn computerized systems check out quickly while the elderly and infirm are forced to wait in longer lines than ever to get the customer service that used to be standard for everyone.
The reports on self-checkouts from the retail industry are mixed; they say that shoplifting has not increased (as I expected it would), but impulse buys are down. Customer service has taken a blow, but prices don’t seem to be decreasing, as they were supposed to have done. It seems that self-checkouts provide little benefit to either retailers or consumers, but I suspect many retailers will keep their self-checkout machines because they don’t want to back out on their investment in them.
I’m curious to see whether self-checkouts will catch on (with or without improvements that make them more beneficial) or will become a passing fad. I don’t really mind scanning my own groceries, but I hope that my grandchildren will know what it’s like to go to a grocery store and hear a live cashier ask, “Paper or plastic?”
Photo courtesy of hamedog