Alex Klaushofer

Sainsbury’s self-checkouts are just the start

Self checkout tills in Sainsbury's (Credit: Getty images)

Sainsbury’s has long had a special place in my heart. The weekly shop at the Orange Store offered excitement to a child and a comforting familiarity that my adult self has found hard to shake off. But roll on the decades and I’m standing, dismayed, in my local Sainsbury’s.

The boss of Sainsbury’s has claimed that many customers like the company’s self-checkouts

The supermarket in my London suburb was a friendly place and the air over the checkouts rang with chatter between customers and the long-standing staff. But on this day a curious silence reigned. Half the checkouts had gone and had been replaced by a ‘self-checkout’ zone. Disconnected from their usual posts, the staff wore rattled expressions. They’d been told they would still have jobs, one said, helping customers ‘on the floor’.

After that, I went to Sainsbury’s less and less. When I did so, I avoided the self-checkouts: instead, I chose to stand resolutely in line in the hope of being served by a person. One evening, I rounded an aisle with my shopping basket full to find the two remaining checkouts closed, a red band drawn across the exit. The harried-looking woman running between the self-checkouts confirmed that no one was available to serve me. Putting down my basket and proclaiming my intention to shop there no more, I was conscious of how loud my voice sounded. Nobody seemed to speak in the new Sainsbury’s: all the other customers were staring silently at the screens in front of them, inputting data.

Amid a backlash against the growing automation of our supermarkets, the boss of Sainsbury’s claimed last month that many customers like the company’s increasing use of self-checkouts. Simon Roberts said: ‘If you visit one of our supermarkets, what you’ll see is definitely more self checkouts than a number of years ago, because actually a lot of customers like the speedy checkout.’

Automation has happened fast: returning to Britain after two years’ exile (my response to lockdown was to leave the country), the replacement of people by machines was the first thing I noticed. Buying a drink in a Sainsbury’s Local was like going through airport security, weaving through lanes towards banks of machines under the gaze of uniformed men. In suburban supermarkets, cameras appeared over the self-checkouts in Tesco, Lidl and the Coop, filming customers close-up. Surveillance in the Coop! What was the country coming to?

I decided to ditch supermarkets, a domestic mission that has taken me to butchers and greengrocers, health stores and Poundland and into a new world of ‘international’ shops stocking produce from Turkey, Poland and Iran. Never has my shopping been so promiscuous or my cooking so from-scratch.

But the habits of a lifetime die hard and I confess that on occasion I would sneak into a Sainsbury’s for a bottle of ginger wine or block of Emmental. Until, that is, I came to a horrible realisation: Sainsbury’s decision to reduce the number of manual checkouts was just the beginning of the supermarket’s dystopian transformation.

Let me explain. The automation of our supermarkets is part of a wider trend in which what we eat and how we get our food is undergoing a profound transformation. If it succeeds, our food supply will depend, like never before, on technology and corporations. Supermarkets very much want to be a part of this.

Sainsbury’s has published a report which describes the path towards a future of tech food through a series of imaginary case studies. In 2025, eco-health student Julia is cooking a celebratory meal for her family out of seaweed and vegetables, the latter grown at Sainsbury’s in-store hydroponic shelves. She knows her dad would prefer a steak but is educating him into a diet beyond meat and fish as part of her mission to promote ecological public health. Julia is good at this: by 2050 she has her own business producing ‘environmentally friendly proteins’ where meat is grown in a vat and ‘assembled’ via 3D technology. Customers, who include her local councillor, come to the plant and watch their dinner being printed out.

In 2169, Julia’s granddaughter is woken by a vibration in her wrist. The implant ‘notifies her nutrition drip to prepare her breakfast shot, dispatched the previous night by Sainsbury’s’. After her automated feed, Jill settles down to watch the news on the inside of her eyeball and marvels at the ‘feats of humankind’.

Where can a grocery business have got ideas fit for Brave New World? The answer, in part, lies in the Netherlands. Modern humanity’s intoxication with the possibilities of technology is in the zeitgeist: these days the Guardian, the paper I used to read for recipes and tips on gardening, runs pieces about ‘lab-grown sausages’ sizzling in a pan of foaming margarine’ at the Dutch startup Meatable.

New forms of technology-based food are also being promoted heavily by a set of powerful commercial and ideological interests. Food Valley NL in the Netherlands is a network of food tech startups, accelerators, R&D labs and multinationals dedicated to accelerating the ‘journey’ to a new food system by 2050. This is a ‘transition’ which they argue is urgently needed to save the planet. One of its leading initiatives is the ‘protein transition’. And yes, this includes eating more insects.

So when I read Sainsbury’s gushing over that fact that it was ‘the first UK supermarket to introduce snack-packs of insects through the brand, Eat Grub’ in their report, I felt a mix of emotions that extend beyond the disgust food tech evangelicals say we must ‘get over’ at the sight of a plate of bugs.

Sainsbury’s holds happy memories for me: the crisp aisle was a highlight on my weekly shop with my mother. But if this supermarket wants to be at the forefront of driving technological change and making the experience of shopping feel even less personal, then count me out. Goodbye, Mr Sainsbury. It’s been a hell of a ride, from excitement and familiarity to dismay and disillusion, but I won’t be coming with you on your journey to the future.