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Why Self-Checkout Is and Has Always Been the Worst

There's a difference in technology developed to improve our lives and technology developed to eliminate jobs. The process of shifting labor from business to the consumer has been going on a long time: fast food restaurants, self-service gas pumps, and automated phone systems come to mind. In the grocery business, it began with letting customers collect their own items in the early 20th century. The tipping point for self-service groceries arrived with self-checkouts, which is a bridge too far for many shoppers. Researcher Alexandra Mateescu talks about the history of self-service.

Just to reemphasize, the pitch from the automated checkout makers was and is all about labor savings and much less about any perceptible improvements for customers. The automated checkout companies do try to nod to some consumer benefits, but it’s a distant and deeply secondary tier of the sell. “While the manufacturers also promote consumer advantages that may indirectly affect businesses‚ most commonly shorter lines and faster checkouts—the main selling point is lower labor costs,” Andrews writes.

“This is the pretty straightforward ‘sell’ laid out in all the marketing material from vendors—‘invest in these machines, and get the savings back and more by trimming payroll,’” Mateescu notes. And, as Andrews adds in another paper, “growing pressure from low-wage nonunion competitors (e.g., WalMart) may cause supermarkets to consider expanding automation beyond current levels, thereby significantly affecting current employment patterns.”

So, the retailers and grocery chains bit. Kmart, Walmart, and a number of other major supermarkets began installing self-checkout systems in the late 90s and early 00s, to mixed success. At best. Actually, people mostly ignored or hated them, for the same reasons you probably still hate them today—items wouldn’t scan, sensors went haywire, and a cashier or supervisor had to be called over to reset the machine or enter some arcane code every other item. Home Depot famously overcommitted to self-checkout and pulled them out after losing business to Lowe’s.

Read more about the shift of labor to consumers and the resulting backlash at Gizmodo.

(Image credit: Chelsea Beck/Gizmodo)


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I've tried a self-checkout exactly once. It kept telling me to put my items in a bag (or something along those lines). Repeatedly. Over and over, no matter if I did what it was asking. At first I was mumbling to myself. Then basically talking back to it. Finally I just yelled back at it, "IT IS IN THE F'N BAG" and just left everything and left, while everybody was staring at idiot guy getting angry at a computer voice.

That was it. My one and only experience with self checkout. I have zero doubt that the issue was 100% me, and not with it being broken or on a loop or anything.

I used to make a point of going to a teller at a bank as well vs using an atm, but now the account that I have has charges against it if simple transactions are done at a teller instead of using the atm.
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I have no problem with them. Our "The"Home Depot and Lowe's have them. Works well like when I need to purchase a container of bug spray, etc.
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I hate them. For precisely the reason in the article. And the stupidest most boneheaded idea ever was to put them in hardware store. But I think the author might be a bit over-wishfull in his writing. Self-service at both my local grocery store and Wal-Mart frequently have waiting lines. Ever been in a Wal-Mart supercenter with only 5-6 cashiers and no express lane checkout? They know what they're doing and how to make it work. . .
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I quite like them. There's never a queue and they make grabbing a few things a lot easier. That said though, I buy things like meat, fruit, veggies & bread from the local butcher, fruit shop & bakery. Working from home, I have that luxury. If I was doing a weekly shop on the way home from work, I'd probably feel differently.
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