The pros and cons of self-checkouts

The first self-service device was a holy water vending machine circa 215 B.C. In 1883, Percival Everitt invented a postcard vending machine used throughout London, England. 1947 saw the advent of the self-service gas station. The first Automatic Teller Machine went into service in 1969.

However, retail establishments like grocery stores relied heavily on clerks doing everything for the customer. Up until the early part of the twentieth century, you walked into a grocery store and handed a shopping list to a clerk, who would find the requested items and place them on the counter to be purchased.

That changed in 1917 when Clarence Saunders opened a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee that began the transition to “self-service.” Customers were permitted to remove items from shelves and put them into a handbasket without the assistance of a clerk. He successfully patented this idea, calling it the “Self-Serving Store.”

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Seven decades later, Florida business executive David R. Humble created and patented a self-service register and founded a company called CheckRobot in 1984.

More than 35 years have passed since that first foray into the automated experience for the retail customer. Today there are nearly 1 million self-serve checkouts across the globe.

Let’s examine the pros and cons of these automated cashiers.

Pros

The Washington Post conducted an experiment a few years ago to see how long it took to purchase 5 items at the self-checkout lanes in a number of grocery stores in the Washington D.C. area. It took under two minutes in every store that was tested.

Some major retailers are now offering mobile checkout utilizing a customer’s mobile phone to scan barcodes while shopping, thus further reducing time spent checking out. Self-checkouts are said to reduce labor costs since one employee can monitor 6-10 registers. These cost savings have spurred big box stores like Walmart to accelerate the implementation of self-checkout. 

Countering the argument that these measures represent job losses, some retail experts say self-serve checkout should be viewed less as labor reduction, and more as a tool for cashiers to support multiple customers simultaneously.

The cost of checking in a passenger at the airport is about $3 with a staffed desk, according to a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation entitled “Embracing the Self-Service Economy.” However, when customers use electronic terminals, the cost plummets to 14 cents. Totally moving to a fully automated check-in and boarding process could save the airline industry $1.6 billion a year, according to the International Air Transport Association

According to Consumer Reports, customers as a general rule, like self-checkout due to the perceived time savings. According to a 2018 survey in Bizrate insights nearly half of the respondents (47 percent) said they used a self-checkout. Millennials are especially fond of new technology, proven by the fact that over 91 percent of those surveyed aged 35 or younger said they used self-service.

A study by Kiosk Marketplace found the use of tablets in restaurants increased customer satisfaction due to the ability for customers to customize orders and split bills.

Cons

There is an increased risk of theft since there are fewer employees. It has been shown that a full 4 percent of the merchandise that passes through self-service kiosks is not actually paid for.

Grocery stores have extremely tight profit margins, so that’s a big deal. For example, a customer will type in the price look-up code for bananas while far more expensive fruits or vegetables or even meat are on the scale. They pull stickers off inexpensive products and put them on expensive items. One Australian woman reportedly photocopied the barcodes from packets of instant noodles and printed them on sticky labels, which she brought to the store and used on every shopping trip.

Many people steal from self-checkouts simply because they become angry that an item won’t scan and figure it’s not their job to try that hard. Others steal small items occasionally because there is only an annoying machine owned by a giant corporation, therefore it turns it into a philosophical debate over whether or not it is actually a crime. The University of Manchester, England criminology professor Shadd Maruna, said,

“Individuals can neutralize guilt they might otherwise feel when stealing by telling themselves that there are no victims of the crime, no human being is actually being hurt by this, only some mega-corporation that can surely afford the loss of a few quid. In fact, the corporation has saved so much money by laying off all its cashiers that it is almost morally necessary to steal from them.”

Self-checkout terminals, self-serve gas pumps, and ATMs have been targeted by thieves using skimmers. Skimmers are pieces of hardware that attach to card readers and record the information from swiped cards while a micro-camera captures the PIN. Although chip cards encrypt information, the tools to commit fraud have also evolved. Skimmers that are designed specifically for chipped credit cards, called, “shimmers,” will undoubtedly increase as chip card usage increases.

Self-serve technology costs companies a large amount of money upfront. A study by MIT showed that a four-lane serve checkout station cost $125,000.

Even though companies are realizing massive cost reductions, there is no proof that cost savings are being passed on to the consumer. Marketplace spoke to leading retailers and industry experts and found no clear evidence that this always occurred.

Do self-checkouts get you out of the store faster? Marketplace timed shoppers with identical grocery lists to see how cashiers compare to self-checkouts.

The cashier was able to process the transaction faster and with fewer problems. Also, in one instance, an incorrectly punched code at a self-checkout meant one shopper was charged $70 for 10 brussels sprouts.

Last but not least is the missing human interaction. Craig Lambert, author of Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, said, “It often takes the human being out of the equation. Those small relationships are part of how you build a community, frankly. Robots don’t interchange banter. There are no pleasantries going back and forth between you and the kiosk. And as a result, it somewhat dehumanizes daily life.”

I, for one, refuse to use self-service if possible because of all of the aforementioned reasons, along with my moral misgivings.