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Why self-checkout has become controversial

With some stores removing self-checkout lanes due to increased thefts, others are embracing self-service options. What's the impact on consumers?
Why self-checkout has become controversial
Posted at 2:59 PM, Oct 29, 2023

The self-checkout has become a point of controversy for many shoppers. Some love it for the solitude, and others hate it for the frequent technical errors.

As Wal-Mart begins to remove some self-checkout lanes in response to growing incidents of theft, others, like Kroger, are doubling down on the technology, converting some of its locations to entirely self-checkout sites. So, with so much uncertainty surrounding self-checkout, what can consumers expect moving forward?

"You kind of have to understand that the self-checkout lane is one in a series of evolutions in the modern supermarket," Christopher Andrews said.

Christopher Andrews is an associate professor of sociology and business at Drew University. He is also the author of the book "The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy."

He says that for many stores, self-checkout has enabled them to cut back on labor costs by having shoppers do some of the work.

"Over time, what we've seen is that more and more tasks have been devolved to shoppers, whether it's through the shopping cart whether it is through weighing our own produce. And so, in this respect, I think the self-checkout lane is just kind of one in a series of progressive steps of stores externalizing or transferring those costs and those tasks onto the customers," Andrews said.

But that cost-saving approach has backfired a bit.

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"The issue that's getting a lot of traction right now is the issue of theft. And what stores found was that not only do many customers require assistance to complete their transactions, if they do not staff the self-checkout lanes, customers will exit with the goods," Andrews said. "So, in a sense, stores thought they were going to save money on labor costs by adding these. And instead, they're losing money through theft and shoplifting, and then they're having to put stuff back there. Just to help address that."

The situation with theft has gotten so bad at self-checkouts that it's become a joke on social media.

"Supermarkets are always looking over to see what are their competitors doing," Andrews said. "They know they're losing money on it, but they worry if they don't have it, some of their customers will go to another store."

In an effort to crackdown on theft, Andrews says some stores are even changing how they confront people at self-checkout.

"So, some stores will wait until you have stolen a certain amount of merchandise so they can charge you with an elevated charge," Andrews said.

But that doesn't change the fact that the technology itself needs some work.

"I actually think that the technology has to be much more intuitive and error-free," Sylvain Charlebois said.

Sylvain Charlebois is the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He says self-checkout is different than other self-service technologies.

"The transaction itself is more intricate. You're dealing with many, many items. Sometimes you have to weigh them. You don't know exactly how much it's going to cost; you have to code, etc. But it's manual intensive, much more so than ATMs in banking," Charlebois said.

Charlebois doesn't believe cashiers will completely disappear, but says that kind of service may come with a price.

"If you go and use the cashiers, you may be charged more. But my guess is that that option would be highly unpopular, especially because we're dealing with food here," Charlebois said.

But remember...

"I tell my students, you know, vote with your feet and with your pocketbook," Andrews said. "You can choose where to shop, and you can influence whether or not these kinds of things are going to become standards."

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