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Target announced at the end of October that they’re limiting self-checkout to 10 items or less. There were mixed feelings online. Most people called out self-checkout for what it is: a way for companies to cut costs by eliminating having to pay actual employees. It’s all about the almighty dollar and those shareholder profits, baby. I guess the joke’s on them because due to a loss of inventory, several other big name retailers have decided to remove self-checkout machines or put clunky other measures in place. These retailers include Walmart, Costco, Wegmans, and British supermarket chain Booths.
Self-checkout, a history: Self-service machines were first introduced during the 1980s to lower labor expenses. They shifted the work of paid employees to unpaid customers. Self-checkout expanded at supermarkets in the early 2000s as stores looked to cut costs, and during the pandemic, many shoppers used self-checkout for the first time to minimize close interaction with employees and other customers.
Customers find them confusing and impersonal: ”Our customers have told us this over time — that the self-scan machines that we’ve got in our stores … can be slow, they can be unreliable (and) they’re obviously impersonal,” Booths managing director Nigel Murray told the BBC. Customers at Booths also frequently misidentified which fruits and vegetables they were buying when prompted by self-checkout machines. Alcohol purchases also were not smooth transactions through self-checkout because employees had to verify customers’ ages.
“Shrink” is a growing problem: [Retailers] have found that self-checkout leads to higher merchandise losses from customer errors and intentional shoplifting — known as “shrink” — than human cashiers ringing up customers. Shrink has been a growing problem for retailers, who have blamed shoplifting for the increase and called for tougher penalties. But retailers’ self-checkout strategies have also contributed to their shrink problems. One study of retailers in the United States, Britain and other European countries found that companies with self-checkout lanes and apps had a loss rate of about 4%, more than double the industry average.
Costco management said this year that shrink increased “in part we believe due to the rollout of self-checkout.” Five Below, the discount toy retailer, said that shrink at stores with more self-checkout lanes was higher. The company plans to increase the number of staffed cash registers in new locations.
User error and technology mishaps: Some products have multiple barcodes or barcodes that don’t scan properly with self-checkout technology. Produce, including fruit and meat, typically needs to be weighed and manually entered into the system using a code. Customers may type in the wrong code by accident. Other times shoppers won’t hear the “beep” confirming an item has been scanned properly.
Some customers pull funny business: Other customers take advantage of the lax oversight at self-checkout aisles and have developed techniques for stealing. Common tactics include not scanning an item, swapping a cheaper item (bananas) for a more expensive one (steak), scanning counterfeit barcodes attached to their wrists or properly scanning everything and then walking out without paying.
Solutions are still causing problems: Stores have tried to limit losses by tightening self-checkout security features, such as adding weight sensors. But additional anti-theft measures also lead to more frustrating “unexpected item in the bagging area” errors, requiring employees to intervene.
I guess it’s more profitable to hire (and underpay) employees after all. It’s funny, though, because as I read through that article, I found myself nodding along with a lot of the issues they were talking about with the self-checkout process. There have been plenty of times when I put a reusable bag down and had to get an employee to clear the screen for me because it triggered the weight or my transaction was held up for a minute or so because someone needed to come over and check my ID to buy beer.
Personally, I really don’t mind self-checkout because I actually like the impersonalness of it. I listen to podcasts while I shop and feel rude going up to the registers with earbuds, even if I’ve pressed pause. The lines also tend to move a little quicker since there are anywhere between four and ten machines, depending on the store. I think the mobile pickup orders are a good compromise for people like me and keeping workers employed. I do find it amusing, though, that the same companies that complained post-2020 that “nobody wants to work anymore” are now getting bit in the butt by measures they implemented for the purpose of not having workers anymore. Oh well, too bad, so sad.
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Photos credit: Jim West / ImageBROKER / Avalon, Filmsbyjosh / BACKGRID and Getty
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