The Demise of Self-Checkout Counters

Thank you, shoplifters, seniors and luddites!

The Demise of Self-Checkout Counters

A couple of years ago, I was in the lineup at Save-on-Foods, Safeway or Superstore (I can’t quite remember). The lineup was getting long, and the customers were getting edgy because there weren’t enough cashiers. The manager came out and politely suggested that “self-checkout was available.” One woman said, “no thanks... I don’t work here.” The manager urged the woman not to be afraid of the self-checkout counters and praised how easy they were... “Even my mother uses them,” said the manager. “I’m not your mother,” she quipped.

But the exponential growth of self-checkout counters at large retail and grocery stores has led to an exponential growth in, you guessed it, shoplifting! Who knew that would happen? With a larger percentage of people being forced to use self-checkout tills (because retailers are hiring fewer cashiers to reduce their labour costs), more people are finding ways to shoplift — either by not scanning their items at all or using the code for carrots but bagging more expensive items that don’t have barcodes. Others simply walk out with the items, pretending to have bought what they’ve stolen. This has led to staff checking receipts on the way out of the stores, angering customers who don’t like being thought of as thieves. As for the thieves, they simply blame the technology if they’re caught.

I’m not sure anyone is feeling particularly sorry for our oligopolistic grocery industry because their cunning plan to replace workers with machines is going off the rails. What did they expect when they converted from checkout counters run by human beings to self-checkout counters run by... well, us? What’s next? Unloading our vegetables from the truck? Cutting our own meat?  If we don’t see any monetary benefit to our grocery bills by using self-check-out counters, why use them? And sometimes they just don’t work and staff have to help with the scanning. Seniors, like me, despise self-checkout machines with a luddite passion. Frankly, I’d rather deal with a human being, even if the wait is longer.

Although they can be convenient for some people, (and in fairness, some people like them), self-checkout machines aren’t paid anything, so they don’t pay taxes like other employees do. They don’t contribute to the economy by buying other goods and services, nor do they contribute to the Canada Pension Plan or Employment Insurance. All they do is allow the big retail chains to rely on us (and the machines) to do the work taxpaying employees could be doing. It might help their bottom line, but it doesn’t help ours. And this is a huge issue as automation and AI take over more and more of our lives and our livelihoods.

If pigs could fly, the federal government would find a way to tax self-checkout tills based on the sales of each machine. Retailers might be incentivized by the tax to hire more workers and mothball the machines. But a more realistic idea is to learn from the gas station industry where consumers are provided with a monetary incentive to pump their own gas instead of paying the “full-service” price. So why hasn’t the grocery industry figured this out and provided consumers with a meaningful discount on all food and other products purchased through their self-checkout tills? Why don’t they give consumers a discount for doing the work their employees could be doing?

Given the severe uptick in shoplifting, negative public perception (particularly among seniors), and customers rebelling at having to show receipts on the way out, some Canadian Tire and Giant Tiger locations in Ontario have removed self-checkout machines in their stores. More chains may remove them altogether. Unfortunately, to further reduce the need for human cashiers, new technology is being developed that will replace normal checkout tills as well as self-checkout tills. The system will instantaneously scan all your purchases as you leave the store in one fell swoop and charge your credit card without you ever seeing a cashier... or a machine.

How I hate the 21st century.

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