May 23: We’re seeing more and more self-checkout machines – a look at the pros and the cons

May 23, 2024

Some of us may remember, back in the good old days, that when you went to get some gas, a friendly attendant rushed up to your window and got the pump going, while cleaning your windshield and checking the oil.

But that experience has long ago been replaced by self-service gas pumps. Are we heading that same route at the drugstore, dollar store, and grocery store? Save with SPP decided to take a look around.

An analysis by the University of Waterloo lists the “pros” of self-checkout as “saving the time of customers and preventing the checkout from becoming overcrowded.” As well, the report notes, “with the installation of self-checkout technologies, retailers can reduce the number of checkout assistants employed, or they may completely cut the checkout assistants.”

This, the article suggests, helps the company’s bottom line – fewer employees to pay, fewer vacancies to fill by HR, and a greater profit.

On the con side, the article notes that the cost of a four-lane self-checkout system may exceed $125,000. “Most small businesses cannot afford this technology,” the article reports. As well, and this is big, most people don’t like having to use self checkout machines.

The article, citing research from Accenture, found that “77 per cent of U.S. customers prefer interacting with humans than with digital devices in service-related issues.” There’s a lack of personalized service with the machines, particularly noted by “senior people who are used to person-to-person service and are more likely to need personal interaction; they might regard this new method of shopping as a lack of service.”

While the university concludes that maybe there should be more focus on personalized service than switching over to costly machines, it seems that every time you go shopping you see more of these machines in place.

A recent story in The Globe and Mail by Rob Csernyk, a former New Brunswick resident now living in Australia, says self-checkouts are really taking off Down Under.

“While living in New Brunswick, I was used to only half a dozen self-checkouts at the superstore near my apartment. But in Australia, self-checkouts are an outsized part of the grocery landscape. Many locations of Coles and Woolworths outlets – the country’s dominant grocery chains – have double that, if not more,” he writes.

Shopping recently at a Coles, he counted 40 self-checkouts and only two clerks helping, he writes.

But if the goal of self-checkouts is saving on labour costs and reducing long lines at the cash, there have been other unexpected consequences, he notes.

“I’ll let you in on a secret from Australia’s big bet: nobody’s happy. For grocers, self-checkout expansion has wrought more theft and a need to spend even more to combat it. For customers, being treated more like potential thieves rather than paying clients is unpleasant,” his article reports.

He concludes that maybe retailers should consider going back to the good old ways – checkouts that are staffed.

“Making shopping experiences more complex and uncomfortable for all shoppers is a daft way to solve the problems inherent with self-checkouts. It increasingly seems like going back to the tried-and-true cashier is a better solution, not to mention one that involves a lot less capital investment. Anti-theft measures don’t come cheap, and the bad press from customer complaints carries a hefty price tag, too,” he notes.

And the customer’s perspective is very important, reports USA Today.

“They just aggravate me,” Julie Domina says of self-checkout machines, telling USA Today that “if I’m going to be checking myself out, I want to get a discount because that means you’re not paying an employee to check me out.”

Hey – that’s a good point. We recall that when self-serve gas pumps first came out, the gas was cheaper if you pumped it yourself, versus getting someone to do it for you. Maybe that long-forgotten discount concept needs to be revisited for self-checkouts.

The article blames the pandemic for getting us going down the self-checkout road.

“While self-checkout technology has been in supermarkets since the 1980s, usage surged during the pandemic, when retailers were struggling to hire and customers wanted less human interaction. The share of transactions through self-checkout lanes hit 30 per cent in 2021, almost double that from 2018, according to data from the Food Industry Association,” the newspaper reports.

Higher theft rates experienced in recent years have prompted retailers to spend more on security, in addition to the cost of buying self-checkout machines, the article notes. Some of the problem is theft, but some of it is simply due to confusion using the machines, the article adds.

“While some losses may be from people using self-checkout to steal, others are from user errors by customers who weren’t trained to use the machines. Maybe the shopper didn’t notice that an item didn’t scan before bagging it, or keyed in the wrong item when weighing their produce,” the article concludes.

It will be interesting to see how Canadian retailers cope with this new technology going forward. Will we follow the Australian example and gear up on the machines, or will we see the opposite – a move away from self-checkout, perhaps, or making the machines more of a “fast lane” for customers with fewer items. Only time will tell.

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.

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