Food / Groceries, Shopping

Do Self-Checkouts Live Up to Their Promises?

self check out

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’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

16 thoughts on “Do Self-Checkouts Live Up to Their Promises?

  1. Inefficiency puts people out of work not advancing technology. By staying efficient and profitable these merchants are continuing to provide jobs for their employees. If you don’t think this is true just think American auto industry.

  2. I use the self checkouts all the time. Faster for me. I hate Wal-Mart and their damned lines! (Why do they have 25 cashier stations, but only two are ever open???)

  3. I use self checkouts at Home Depot, WalMart and a couple of other places. I’ll only do so when I have a relatively small number of items that all have clear UPC codes. I find them much more efficient, even if the cashier needs to come over to help.

    Most stores have trouble finding enough qualified and reliable employees today and this is just a response to that, I believe.

  4. I don’t think it puts people out of work. It actually creates more work because no matter how easy you think it is to use those self-checkouts, there is always a problem and a store clerk has to be called over.

  5. if you bring your own reusable, canvas bag, you won’t have to hear “paper or plastic?” again either!

  6. I’m on board with #2 and #3. I use the self scan check-outs all the time at my local grocery store. I usually limit it to 10 items or less, but if you get people in front of you who know how to tie their shoes without drooling on themselves it’s usually way faster here.

    Since many people avoid them, if I am running in for 3-4 items I can walk in, get my items, check-out, and be out of the store. I don’t have to listen to the old lady in front of me chit chat about how large her cats hairballs are and I don’t need to play nice guy with a cashier.

  7. I like the self-checkouts. I rarely go through the lines that have cashier’s. When I find a mistake, it can be fixed there. Also, the coupons go through without a hitch unlike the cashier’s who argue with you about something on the coupon. Also, you don’t have to put up with an attitude from the machine.

  8. ChrisCD, I wonder if that has less to do with lack of staff, technology replacing workers, or other sources and more to do with the low US dollar?

    Considering you get far less goods when buying with USD from China (Yuan) than two years ago (something like 8.5% less) the Walmart folks have to make up the difference somewhere. That will come out of cutting costs or increasing prices. Since ‘Roll Forwards’ rather than ‘Roll Backs’ haven’t appeared in the flyer yet I assume they are trying to do the same work with less people.

  9. 1) Home Depot here has 4 self checkouts and one cashier manning them. Every time I’ve been there, the cashier has anticipated every problem, and generally been right there before I could turn to ask for help. It’s the most efficient self checkout process I’ve seen (the 4 registers are set up in a box, with the cashier near the front-middle).

    2) I prefer using self checkouts because I dislike talking to the cashiers sometimes, and because I dislike anyone else bagging my stuff (bag people have a tendency to get confused/annoyed/belligerent if you try to take over the job). I was a grocery store cashier for 3 years, and bag things faster and better than most baggers (I had to bag and be cashier 95% of the time).

  10. Adoption of the technology is slow and many people are not yet efficient at bagging their own groceries. As people get used to the idea, I think the ROI on the activity will improve. Especially as it takes one attendent to run four automated checkout machines.


  11. Most of the stores around here do not have self checkouts. There is only one place where I go maybe once every 2-3 months. I tried the self checkout once, scanned a few items successfully and then ran into a problem and had to wait for an employee to help. I found it a very frustrating experience and decided never to use the self checkout again.

  12. My grocery store has about 15 checkout lanes and it seems that there are never more than three open, even when lines are 10 deep. Why has this become standard practice at so many businesses? I have many reasons for not shopping at Wal-Mart anymore, and the obscenely long lines (30+ minutes is not uncommon) are definitely on the list.

    I have no problem with self-checkouts, but I almost always avoid them because something always goes wrong. You bring up an interesting and thoughtful point about how those who could theoretically benefit most from self-checkout are unable to use them. I hadn’t considered that before.

  13. There are two competing grocery stores in my area, and although the one with self-check is a few blocks further, I go there. I only purchase a few items at a time (which i believe is the store’s intended use) and can usually get in and out of the store in 5 – 10 minutes.

  14. I think the self checkout is very easy and works like a dream provided you have worked retail when you were younger and are comfortable with the scanner. I tend to save 25-50% of the time checking out, not counting the line. The only main problem is when you get someone not technical proficent trying to use them.

  15. I use self-checkouts when possible for the reasons mentioned by others, but fairly few stores in my area offer them.

    The next time the lines are so long, why not try politely asking a cashier (or a person in Customer Service) to call up additional cashiers?

    When I cashiered at CVS, the policy was crystal clear (not that we didn’t ignore it sometimes): if there were three or more customers in ANY given line, the cashier had to page for an additional cashier, even if that meant that a manager had to ring up customers. Try reminding people of that policy the next time you’re standing in a long line at CVS.

  16. I went into my cvs store today like a normal day looking for sales …found what i wanted went to pay noone at the store and the cashier ingores me..and then after 10 minutes tells me to go to the self checkout…never used it she tells me where to put my money and left…Well yeah i was checkout…but what happen to people friendly and have a good day….and our teens who look forward to this summer jobs???even people who are being laid off and need a job at cvs until they can get back on their help pay the bills…what happend to the cashiers in the stores right now….???I as a long time customer and with many of my peers that shop at CVS will be doing a BIG BOYCOTT..and we will be picketing at this store to stop tech taking over…God does not like this…what is happening to this country…I was born and raised here but i can say I WANT OUT>>>>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *