Is it time to end self-checkout for shoppers?

A self-checkout section of a major retail store
A self-checkout section of a major retail store. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

When self-checkout was first unveiled more than 30 years ago, it was hailed as a revolution in customer service that would save shoppers from long lines, free workers from the tedium of repetitive jobs and allow companies to slash their labor costs.

Today, the technology is nearly everywhere. It’s estimated that nearly a third of all grocery transactions are completed at a self-checkout kiosk. But we're far from the consumers’ utopia that was once promised. There’s no evidence that self-checkout is any faster — though many customers seem to think it is. The machines can also be clunky and difficult to use, as anyone who’s been forced to flag down a staff member while a robotic voice says “unexpected item in the bagging area” can attest. There’s even evidence that the machines could be making us lonelier.

It’s not clear whether the rise of self-checkout has been a win for companies either. There’s no consensus on how much of an impact the technology has had on retailers’ employment costs. Self-checkout also makes shoplifting much easier and increases the odds that customers will mistakenly pay less for the things they buy.

A number of stores have started making changes to combat these issues, including devoting more customer support staff to the self-checkout area, increasing anti-theft protocols or testing out limits on the number of items that can be bought. Walmart recently pulled the machines from a small number of its stores. One British grocery chain has ditched self-checkout almost entirely.

Why there’s debate

The harshest skeptics say self-checkout is a failed experiment that can’t possibly be fixed. They argue that we need humans involved if the purchase process is going to run smoothly. Others are worried about a world in which self-checkout fully replaces human workers, resulting in our society becoming even more disconnected.

Self-checkout’s defenders say the critics are exaggerating their claims against the technology. They point to industry surveys showing a majority of consumers prefer self-checkout to human cashiers. Many argue that customer complaints will fade away as the systems become more sophisticated and shoppers get more practice using them.

What’s next

Shoppers should expect to see some changes in the self-checkout aisle in the near future as retailers test new strategies to overcome the system’s shortcomings.


Humans are irreplaceable, at least for now

“The kiosk technology, as it stands, just isn’t good enough to support the level of autonomy from the vagaries of paid human labor that retailers wish their stores could have. Within the industry, there are great hopes for its eventual improvement. ... Perhaps that is the future, but for now, a familiar limitation of many grand tech-industry promises endures: At the bottom of all the supposed convenience, you do actually just need a lot of people to operate a store.” — Amanda Mull, The Atlantic

If everyone truly hated self-checkout, it would be gone already

“In the end, the biggest question mark in the future of self-service is not government policy or even technological innovation, but consumer preference. It is consumers who decide which products and services become profitable and which fail. For the most part, consumers have welcomed self-checkouts.” — Tyler Curtis, Foundation for Economic Education

We’re stuck with self-checkout, whether it improves or not

“It may simply be too late for stores to turn their back on self-checkout. Stores today are catering to shoppers who perceive self-checkout to be faster than traditional cashiers, even though there’s little evidence to support that. But, because customers are doing the work, rather than waiting in line, the experience can feel like it’s moving more quickly. Store owners have also seen competitors installing self-checkout and determined they don’t want to miss out.” — Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Companies must see a profit advantage to self-checkout, or they wouldn’t be using it

“With all the theft at self-checkout, the labor cost savings of the kiosks must outweigh the profits lost — otherwise why have them? But scamming grocery stores could get more difficult as companies create new technologies to prevent theft.” — Allison Arnold, Delish

The best system is one that gives shoppers the choice

“I think that the prevailing wisdom right now is to give consumers a choice. The strengths that supermarkets have had in the past is they've been able to have some human interaction. I think they’re realizing they need to keep that, at least for customers who really appreciate that.” — Economics professor Ronald Larson, Luther College, to USA Today

Self-checkout will always feel like a free pass to shoplift

“In a way, stores are accessories to the crime wave. Self-checkout is so infuriating that people think: ‘As long as this soulless megacorp is making me work, I deserve a little employee discount, right? After all, who am I ripping off? A robot?’” — Rick Reilly, Washington Post

Some of the greatest harms of self-checkout can’t be quantified

“While I don’t think checkout counter small talk is a stand-in for more meaningful conversations and in-person connections, I do think it’s a reminder of our interconnectedness in the world. We do, sometimes, owe people attention and reciprocity, especially when we are benefitting from their attention or services.” — Bettina Makalintal, Eater

Self-checkout is a thinly veiled strategy for companies to spend less on their workers

“In addition to whittling down an entire category of blue-collar jobs, what many consumers don’t understand is that under a self-checkout paradigm, they are now unpaid ‘workers’ and less-skilled ones at that. This free consumer labor has set companies strategizing to find new ways to further cut labor costs.” — Gabrielle Gurley, American Prospect

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images