Mary Dejevsky

The trouble with supermarket self checkouts

Rather than speed things up, they make us miserable

  • From Spectator Life

Finishing my latest mini-shop at my closest mini-supermarket, I witnessed something I hadn’t seen before. A couple who had used the self-checkouts were stopped at the exit by a staff member who asked to see inside their (store-branded) plastic bag. The customers obliged without demur and a half-smile sent them on their way. But it could have been different. Recent reports suggest strongly that aggression towards staff at supermarkets is on the rise. 

Whatever the reason for the check, I have to confess – as an observer – to a tiny frisson of satisfaction. This was partly that someone was checking; I have seen people quite brazenly leave past the machines without paying, which means higher prices all round, does it not? But it was mainly because I had spotted that one of four potentially staffed tills was actually staffed – and staffed, what’s more, by someone who accepted that it was part of his job to check out my shopping, rather than reload the lottery machine or fish out cigarette packets from behind the till. 

Of such are small victories made – because I have to confess that I am one of those dinosaurs who still hates and resists self-checkouts, even after all this time. I particularly resent them now, because I’m walking with a stick after an accident and there is nowhere to prop it up by a self-checkout till, so at some point it inevitably falls on the floor with a clatter, threatening to trip up other shoppers and forcing me into a precarious act of retrieval. 

A bottle of wine prompts an instruction to ‘call for assistance’

But it is not just this. It’s the noise; it’s the robotic accusations about ‘unfamiliar objects in the bagging area’ that have – rightly – become a source of ridicule. It’s that there is often no clue as to where to put what, so you get told off by the machine; then it won’t let you pack stuff into your bag as you scan so you get told off again.  

And it all takes so long. An experienced till operator can get through most people’s shopping in minutes; for those amateurs among us, the process takes many times longer and is punctuated with annoying glitches. A bottle of wine prompts an instruction to ‘call for assistance’. ‘Loose items’, so called, are a particular bugbear. I recently tried to track down a cheese scone, only to find it hidden under ‘bakery (sweet)’. Another branch of the same store had informed me halfway through my check-out that it didn’t weigh things. So I had to put everything back in my basket and start again on a different machine (with a helpful minder, this time). 

None of this improves my mood, as, I suspect, it probably doesn’t improve yours. With the result that supermarkets, from being heroes of the hour during the pandemic, are starting to get on our nerves again. Understandably, they are fighting back. 

Tesco is in the process of introducing bodycams for staff to use in the event of aggro from customers; other stores already have them or are following suit. This is in addition to CCTV. Exit checks are increasingly becoming part of the supermarket experience at the small neighbourhood stores like mine, which have already proliferated in recent years at bigger outlets. A growing number are also installing exit gates and requiring shoppers to show their receipt as they leave. On occasion, the receipt will be matched to the contents of their bag. 

Much of this is explained as part of new effort to combat what is presented as the growing scourge of shoplifting, which in turn is blamed partly on police lack of interest and rather more on the cost of living crisis. But maybe we need to go back a bit further than the cost of living crisis and ask whether something else might be, if not entirely to blame for an upsurge in stealing – which is what shoplifting is – then at least a contributing factor in the losses that the supermarkets may now be trying to stem. 

And here I would return to the self-checkouts. Stagnant productivity has long been a negative feature of the UK economy and I would certainly be among those who blame the widespread availability of cheap labour for discouraging investment in automation. Supermarket self-checkouts might look like a welcome exception: fewer staff, lower costs, lower prices on the shelves, and, naturally, higher productivity. 

But has it worked out like that? Do supermarket self-checkouts make the case for automation in the consumer sector or could this be the wrong sort of automation? All the measures currently being introduced, from exit gates and bag checks to personal bodycams, require staff and time and cost money. 

There are other questions, too. Leave aside police policy, have little-monitored self-checkouts made it easier for people just to walk out with their shopping? Do customers get so cross with the machines that they think it is justified payback to put prawns or asparagus in their bag, having scanned them as potatoes? Yes, I know they shouldn’t, but do they? And what of the reality that supermarkets have reduced their wage bill essentially by making customers staff the tills for free? If you have just a few items, it may be quicker. For a family-sized shop, it really isn’t. 

The only truly efficient, buyer-friendly, self-checkouts I have come across are at the Japanese store, Uniqlo, where you put your basket into a scanner and it reads the tickets. Unless supermarkets can do that, they might look at the losses from theft and deception, as well as the bills they are now running up for additional security, and ask whether the sums really add up. Might it not be simpler and cheaper, as well as better for customer relations and curbing crime, just to start staffing the majority of their tills again, as, indeed, they have mostly never stopped doing elsewhere in Europe?