‘Unexpected item’: how self-checkouts failed to live up to their promise

‘Unexpected item’: how self-checkouts failed to live up to their promise

When the first self-checkout kiosks were rolled out in American stores more than three decades ago, they were presented as technology that could help stores cut costs, save customers time, and even prevent theft.

Businesses still fret over these issues, and against a tight labor market, more companies are making self-checkouts the norm. This week Walmart revealed that thefts from its stores are at a historical high, which many staff and customers link to self-checkouts. But not only have the machines failed to live up to their promises; they’ve made things harder for just about everyone, including the workers who they were supposed to replace.

That includes 25-year-old James, head cashier at a large Washington state store, where he’s worked for four years. He says running the self-checkout has become one of the most tiring parts of his job, which pays just a little more than minimum wage.

Customers often take out their frustrations on him. “This should be your fucking job, not mine,” he recalls a man snapping at him recently. “I said, ‘Sir, no one’s forcing you to come to self-checkout. If you want a cashier you can go to register three.’”

James is required to surveil an uninterrupted stream of up to four customers at once – “like a shark with blood in the water” – as they struggle with the scanner and touchscreen, and sometimes try to shoplift. “You’re confined to that little place, and you’re pretty much standing in one spot for up to eight hours a day, which just kills your feet. And having to deal with so many people just drains your mental battery,” he says.

In 2018, just 18% of all grocery store transactions went through a self-checkout, rising to 30% last year. Walmart, Kroger, Dollar General, and Albertson’s are now among retail chains testing out full self-checkout stores.

That’s not something we should get excited about, says Christopher Andrews, a sociologist who examined the kiosks in his 2018 book, The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. Despite what grocery stores and kiosk manufacturers claim, research shows self-checkouts aren’t actually any faster than a regular checkout line, Andrews says. “It only feels like it because your time is occupied doing tasks, rather than paying attention to each second ticking away.”

Neither have they reduced the need for workers: despite the increase in self-checkouts, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the number of cashiers employed in the US has remained virtually the same over the last 10 years. And any reduction in low-wage workers has been offset by the need to pay technicians to maintain the kiosks, Andrews says – and the kiosks can cost as much as $150,000 for a single row.

So if self-checkouts are so ineffective, why do we have them at all?

The self-service policies of modern supermarkets have largely been “imposed by the companies, not because of customers asking for it”, says Andrews. Before 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 take items off of the shelves themselves – and received a discount for doing so.

In 1986, a handful of Kroger stores installed the first self-checkout machines, which cost $5m to develop. The contraptions, called CheckRobots, required customers to scan items and place them on a conveyor belt before a human employee bagged them on the other end. Donald Dufek, a Kroger vice-president, admitted that the system was actually slower than traditional checkouts. But “if the customer feels and thinks this checkout method is faster, they’re satisfied with getting out the store faster”, he told reporters at the time.

self checkout at walmart
‘The companies think: “If we can just convince more people to do this, maybe we can start to reduce some overhead.”’ Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Andrews says his research has found that the majority of people don’t actually want self-checkouts. The real reason stores use them, he says, is because their competitors do. “It’s not working great for anybody, but everybody feels like they have to have it. The companies think: ‘If we can just convince more people to do this, maybe we can start to reduce some overhead.’”

Meanwhile, self-checkouts have become a prime target for fraudsters, who use a variety of tactics to beat anti-theft measures. Weight sensors can be defeated by ringing up expensive items – like king crab legs – as cheap items like apples. James, the cashier in Washington, says he saw a customer trying to buy a $1,600 grill for $5 by hiding one item inside another and switching the barcodes.

That has led to an arms race of sorts as some retailers have responded with increasingly strong measures. Walmart is known for aggressively prosecuting 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 activity of shopping into a quasi-TSA, airport-style security check,” says Andrews.

Measures like these have drawn scorn from labor advocates. Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 1 million retail workers, says “a well-staffed store with well-trained employees who check out customers is the easy and smart solution”.

Instead, Perrone says, retailers like Walmart have increasingly sought to use self-checkouts to cut jobs and increase profits.

A Walmart spokesperson, Charles Crowson, declined to comment on the company’s self-checkouts but said the retailer was “continually exploring effective ways to protect merchandise, keep prices low and provide a safe environment for the millions of customers we serve weekly”.

The kiosks pose problems beyond theft. Self-checkouts are often inaccessible for people with limited vision or wheelchair users, who complain they are forced to flag down a cashier every time they use the computerized kiosks. The National Federation of the Blind sued Walmart in 2018 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by “excluding blind people from using the service in the way that it was intended – independently and privately”, though a federal judge ruled in Walmart’s favor last year.

The checkout screens could also be a threat to your health, according to a recent study by the UK-based Infection Innovation Consortium that took samples from a selection of everyday objects. “The self-checkout samples had one of the highest bacterial loads, as we found five different types of potential disease-causing bacteria surviving on them,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Adam Roberts, in a statement. “This included Enterococcus, which is found in human feces and, while this is usually harmless, it can of course lead to disease, particularly in those who may have weakened immune systems.”

Could we ever see a world without self-checkouts? Yes, if customers refuse. “Businesses are looking for creative ways to cut labor costs, and if they can figure out how to convince customers to do more of the work, they’ll do it,” says Andrews. “I tell people to vote with your pocketbook. I went to my local supermarket the other night after work and filled up my cart. The staff said to go to self-checkout – and I just walked away. Because my thinking was, ‘I’m not going to sit here and scan 60 items. It’s just not worth my time.’”

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