Supermarket Self-Checkouts Being Replaced With People

The conspiracy by grocery store owners to turn us all into unpaid cashiers may be ending.

The conspiracy by grocery store owners to turn us all into unpaid cashiers may be ending.

AP (“Big Y Replacing Supermarket Self-Checkout Machines…With Human Clerks“):

When Keith Wearne goes grocery shopping, checking out with a cashier is worth the few extra moments, rather than risking that a self-serve machine might go awry and delay him even more.

Most shoppers side with Wearne, studies show. And with that in mind, some grocery store chains nationwide are bagging the do-it-yourself option, once considered the wave of the future, in the name of customer service.

“It’s just more interactive,” Wearne said during a recent shopping trip at Manchester’s Big Y Foods. “You get someone who says hello; you get a person to talk to if there’s a problem.”

Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out the self-serve lanes. Some other regional chains and major players, including some Albertsons locations, have also reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes.

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used traditional cashier-staffed lanes.

Supermarket chains started introducing self-serve lanes about 10 years ago, touting them as an easy way for shoppers to scan their own items’ bar codes, pay, bag their bounty and head out on their way. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts as they encouraged shoppers to do it themselves.

The reality, though, was mixed. Some shoppers loved them and were quick converts, while other reactions ranged from disinterest to outright hatred – much of it shared on blogs or in Facebook groups.

An internal study by Big Y found delays in its self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons, payments and other problems; intentional and accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less-expensive varieties; and other problems that helped guide its decision to bag the self-serve lanes.

Surprisingly, many of the commenters at the Consumerist post on this (“Fewer Supermarket Shoppers Using Self-Checkout Lanes“) are opposed to the move. The first commenter, for example, observes, “I’d much rather use self-checkout than wait in the express line behind people who don’t understand the concept of an item limit.” Another opines, “Self checkouts are SO convenient for those of us who aren’t idiots. When I just need a couple things, I can be in and out of the store in under 5 minutes.”

Erik Loomis is more typical:

I am very glad to see this. As Atrios points out, these things are nothing more than a calculated plan by grocery stores to employ less people. I thought that the very first time I saw them. I hate them with great passion. For years, I wouldn’t use them at all. Then, probably at a Wal-Mart when I had a bag of cat litter and nothing else and everyone in front of me had huge carts, I used one out of desperation. I swear they are no faster. They are hard to use, you usually have to ask someone to come help you, except the employee is helping someone else.

Atrios, aka Duncan Black, titles his post “Anything That Lets Us Lay People Off” but has always questioned the business model:

It isn’t possible for me to know, but I’ve long been puzzled by the widespread adoption of self-service checkouts in supermarkets and other places. It didn’t seem to me that the additional capital costs would really be offset by labor cost reductions. They still require at least one hovering employee to deal with problems and card people for alcohol purchases. In addition, people aren’t very fast at using the machines so you need a higher number of machines/user to speed people through the line. We may not see “supermarket cashier” as a super high skilled position, but the fact remains that doing it well, as with most things, does in fact require skill. A good cashier is fast and accurate, checking people out more quickly and more efficiently.

Put me in the “this is annoying and demeaning” camp along with Patton Oswalt:

It’s not all that hard to ring up items in a UPC scanner world but the entire system is designed to prevent against theft and therefore to assume the customer is trying to get items past without paying for them. So, inevitably, the machine will encounter an unexpected item on the conveyer belt and demand that you scan it again.  And, of course, there’s then a pile of goods at the end of the belt that the customer gets to pack themselves into those .0001 mil bags that are stuck together on the hooks at the end–while the next customer in line starts shoving their groceries in your direction.

No thanks.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Science & Technology, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mantis says:

    I use them almost exclusively, and it’s much faster and less annoying.

    I also use ATMs to get cash, rather than waiting in line for a teller. Oddly, I find that more convenient.

    Oh, and I bring my own bags to the grocery store so I don’t have to use their crappy ones. You can too (just be sure to wash them out occasionally).

  2. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: I’ve used ATMs since I started banking, circa 1984, and have never found them problematic. Self-checkout works fine for me at, say, a drug store. At grocery stores, though, I’ve never had them work well when I have more than 4-5 items.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    @mantis: And I’ve found the self-service pumps at gas stations useful as well.

  4. Jay says:

    “I swear they are no faster. They are hard to use, you usually have to ask someone to come help you, except the employee is helping someone else.”

    Oh please. It’s so easy a monkey could do it. It’s perfect if you have a handful items. The notion somehow that this is all a big conspiracy by grocery chains to hire less people is right up the alley of Atrios and his ilk. Which means as usual, they have no idea what they are talking about.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    @James Joyner: I have to admit I don’t do hardly any of the bulk shopping in our house, so I can’t speak to that. But the more I”ve used them the better the experience has been (either I am learning, or the machine or both)

  6. Jay Tea says:

    @mantis: I also use ATMs to get cash, rather than waiting in line for a teller. Oddly, I find that more convenient.

    Obama says ATMs are part of the reason we have such bad unemployment. You’re part of the problem, traitor!!!


  7. I’d hate to see them disappear completely. For that 6pm stop at the store on the way home where you just want to get 1 or 2 things without waiting in line, they are perfect. And I’ve always found the arguments of those on the left against them to be annoying and pedantic

  8. Ben says:

    If I have less than a dozen items or so, I always use them. I have never run into an issue with one at a supermarket, and only had to ask a teller’s help once because it wasn’t taking my coupon. The statement that they’re no faster is complete hogwash.

  9. Brett says:

    I’ve honestly never had a major problem with self-check-out. The whole “please remove the last item from the bagging area” message can be annoying at times, but it rarely happens once you get the hang of the new machines – and I find them to be much faster than the cashiers in my local grocery stores.*

    * Or at least they’re faster when you’re not waiting in a line to use one, behind the old guy who hasn’t gotten the hang of it and never will.

    Loomis’s point is kind of dumb. A lot of things are “calculated efforts” to reduce the need for more people. If he’s that concerned, maybe he should delete Microsoft Word from his computer and hire a Word Processor and Secretary.

    @PD Shaw

    And I’ve found the self-service pumps at gas stations useful as well.

    Same here. No wonder Oregon and New Jersey actually had to outlaw them to protect the jobs of Full Service pump workers.

    Just as awesome has been the full implementation of self-check-outs at my county library system. You have no idea how much faster and easier it became to check out library books.

    Of course, what I would love even more would be if Fast Food Restaurants could finally hop on the Self-Service Wagon.

  10. mantis says:

    Obama says ATMs are part of the reason we have such bad unemployment. You’re part of the problem, traitor!!!

    Actually, Obama says that automating certain jobs contributes to unemployment, which is true. He says that in the context of describing a changing employment landscape:

    The president said that “the other thing that happened, though, and this goes to the point you were just making, is there are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM; you don’t go to a bank teller. Or you go to the airport, and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate. So all these things have created changes in the economy, and what we have to do now — and that’s what this job council is all about — is identifying where the jobs for the future are going to be; how do we make sure that there’s a match between what people are getting trained for and the jobs that exist; how do we make sure that capital is flowing into those places with the greatest opportunity. We are on the right track. The key is figuring out how do we accelerate it.”

    As technologies advance and industries change, some jobs disappear and some new ones appear. That’s what the president said. He didn’t say ATMs are bad. He didn’t say ATM users are traitors. He described reality. I understand it’s a difficult concept for you to grasp.

    Anyway, another straw man from Jay. SSDD. It’s especially pathetic that you have to borrow straw men from Erick Erickson.

  11. BigFire says:

    The only issue I have with them is with vegetables and item without bar code. If the self checkout are available, I always use them.

  12. John Burgess says:

    My local groceries don’t offer self-check-out. Nor, for that matter, do the drug stores. I’ve used the ones in CVS in DC, though, and I’d probably welcome them to DC-area Safeways as the employees there have got to be among the world’s most surly.

    But for ATMs, gas pumps, and my library, I’m happy to do the work myself. Especially for the library as a couple of unionized county employee salaries buy a lot of books!

  13. @John Burgess:

    They’ve got them in the Safeway’s in my part of Northern Virginia, although these are mostly grocery stores construction within the last 10 years I assume. The one grocery chain out here that doesn’t have them is Wegman’s interestingly enough

  14. Hey Norm says:

    More ideology not matching fact from JTea.

    A major hole in the theory is that here in CT you can’t run beer through the self-checkout line without someone coming to check your ID. I prefer the self checkout…so I started buying beer at the package store instead.
    It’s my belief that the loss of my beer business is the sole reason for the change…no business can survive that kind of downturn.

  15. @Hey Norm:

    That’s the policy here in Virginia too, though I’m not sure its a law.

    I’ve brought wine or beer through the self-checkout plenty of times and the person manning the control station never checks my ID before doing the little computer bypass thing they have to do.

    That probably means I couldn’t possibly look like I’m under 21 so I guess I should be insulted

  16. The Florida Masochist says:

    I use self checkout at Costco and Wally World all the time. Count me as a customer who would be unhappy to see them go.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    The notion somehow that this is all a big conspiracy by grocery chains to hire less people is right up the alley of Atrios and his ilk.

    And I’ve always found the arguments of those on the left against them to be annoying and pedantic.

    And yet, the main argument is coming from James himself…far be it from that fact to get in the way of some ideological bashing…

  18. Anthony says:

    I’m really surprised that America is so keen on non-self-service petrol stations. They’ve all been self-service in the UK since I was a child.

    I don’t like self-service checkouts at the supermarket. That said, the arguments put forward by people like Erik Loomis are utterly ridiculous (should we expect anything else?). If you don’t like them and don’t think they work well, that’s one thing. If you think already very rich companies are downgrading the service provided to their customers in order to make even more money, fine. But to boycott self-service checkouts PURELY on the basis that they might end up rendering a particular source of employment obsolete is ludicrous. It is a line of thinking that, unless I’m missing something, is literally indistinguishable from 19th century Luddism. Taken to its logical conclusion, pretty much every technological innovation for the last couple of centuries is by definition a blight.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    @ Doug….

    I’m sure my grey “hi-lights” fool them into thinking I’m younger!!!!

  20. jan says:

    Self check-out is good in some venues and not in others. I don’t know of any gas stations that are not fully automated, and you do it yourself. Home Depot put in self check out aisles, and then took most of them out. As for grocery shopping. I go to a smaller neighborhood market, where we know all the checkers, or to TJ’s (Trader Joes), where, again there are humans behind the registers…..who I have gotten to know.

    Personally I think self check-outs tend to be yet another convenience device which isolates people from each other. Just the computer alone has eliminated the need for face-to-face contract. Now, when you have check-outs that are automated, it eliminates yet another ‘face’ in the service sector.

    Does ‘faster’ always have to trump interpersonal contact in order for progress to happen?

  21. ponce says:

    Taken to its logical conclusion, pretty much every technological innovation for the last couple of centuries is by definition a blight.

    I don’t know about that.

    Why is it unreasonable to resist losing a free service most of us have been provided our entire lives?

    It’s not like self check out is an improvement over the way things are done now, unlike most “innovations.”

  22. Anthony says:


    But the resistance from this particular quarter isn’t over losing a free service that is valued. If you think the manned checkout provides a better service, that’s one thing (I’d agree). But that isn’t the argument. The argument is that manned checkouts should be kept in existence in order to maintain and provide jobs. That I don’t buy.

  23. JKB says:

    The biggest problem I’ve seen with the self-check out in retail,(grocery, Home Depot) is there is to much emphasis on theft prevention and not enough on making it simple, and not insulting. If they are that concerned about theft, take them out and put a cashier in place. Home Depot is problematic unless you stick with small solid items that are easy to scan. I’ve walked after a filter kept causing a problem and the person overseeing was busy helping another customer sort out a non-scan.

    As for outside pay gas pumps, they are the best thing since sliced bread. No standing in line while they look for someone’s smokes. Plus, the ability to buy gas at midnight in West Texas where the exits are 40 miles apart, they just leave the pumps on for credit cards.

  24. john personna says:

    Out here we have a mini-grocery chain that uses only self-checkout. They (Fresh and Easy) are about the size and style of a Trader Joe’s, which uses all gen-x humans.

    Based on my reading on innovation I’d say this is the way it will play out, that someone will really structure on the idea, and then succeed at it or not. I don’t think the action is in old-line stores with a self-checkout option.

  25. john personna says:

    (What a crazy page. It asserts that Grocery Clerks and Store Shelf Stockers have an unemployment rate of 6% … and an average pay of $9.53/hr.)

  26. The thing I really want to see Grocery Stores get rid of is people who still insist on holding up the line for 15 minutes so they can pay with a written check. Jesus Christ, it’s 2011, lady–get a god damn debit card already!!!

  27. john personna says:

    I guess that was 2004 data, 2010-2011 data here, though without an unemployment rate.

    It does say:

    Employment change. Employment of cashiers is expected to grow by 4 percent between 2008 and 2018 which is slower than the average for all occupations. Continued growth in retail sales is expected, but the rising popularity of purchasing goods online will limit the employment growth of cashiers, although many customers still prefer the traditional method of purchasing goods at stores. Also, the growing use of self-service checkout systems in retail trade, especially at grocery stores, should have an adverse effect on employment of cashiers. These self-checkout systems may outnumber checkouts with cashiers in the future in many establishments. The impact on job growth for cashiers will largely depend on the public’s acceptance of this self-service technology.

    4 percent over 10 years?

  28. george says:

    I’ve never had a problem with either the self-checkout or the staffed checkout – but I find it easier to joke around with the staff at the regular checkout than with the machines, so I go with the staffed. When the Turing machines on the self-checkouts have a decent personality I might start using them more.

  29. ponce says:

    The argument is that manned checkouts should be kept in existence in order to maintain and provide jobs. That I don’t buy.


    Are you saying that the goal of this failed experiment wasn’t to reduce the number of people grocery stores have to employ?

  30. anjin-san says:

    Actually, Obama says that automating certain jobs contributes to unemployment

    I think this concept is stretching Jay’s neurons way beyond factory specs…

  31. John Burgess says:

    @JKB: I’ll certainly agree about the late-night access to fuel. I’ve spent way too many anxious hours trying to find an open station in the boonies while my car is running on fumes.

    I did learn, however, that the Baltimore Tunnel has state-owned stations at either end of the tube. And they only charge a $2.00/gallon ‘convenience fee’ when you buy gas there. Better than running out in the middle of the tunnel, but that’s about it.

  32. Jay Tea says:

    @mantis: Dude… go check the lost and found. See if anyone turned in your sense of humor.


  33. MarecOne says:

    Too bad. Seen these thing works really great. Been using myself and it was ok.

  34. matt says:

    @James Joyner: I’m fiancee got me hooked on using the ATM for everything including check deposits (direct deposit is FTW).

    I didn’t care for self check outs at first but it’s extremely convenient if you’re only at the store for a couple items. In and out in very little time usually in comparison to the staffed checkout lanes.

    @JKB : Oh lordie finding a gas station in west Texas sometimes is just…

    EDIT: I haven’t talked to a bank teller in a year.

  35. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:

    That is probably the real reason why stores do not like them. Self=check discourages customers from buying more than a few items. If a store has five self-checkout but only one cash register open, it is hard to justify going there to purchase a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four.

    However, I hate going into stores without self checkout if I am only purchasing a few items. I do not want to wait in a long express lane checkout.

  36. Lyn says:

    I liked the option but they’re long gone from the stores I used them in. They were great when you had items you didn’t want some young cashier of the opposite sex seeing you buy.

  37. just me says:

    Our Walmart stopped using them months ago. Although theirs often would be problematic.

    I absolutely love them though unless I have a large order. But I would much rather do self check-out with small orders. I have found them faster and easier than using the cashier. The self check-out lines or also often much shorter. I think a huge factor is the machine itself-like I said the grocery ones are fine, but the Walmart ones were often prone to problems.

    I also think a person’s comfort with using them matters. Some people can’t even find the barcode much less figure out how to scan it.

    I would actually be sad to see our grocery store ones go away.

  38. Rob in CT says:

    I think they have their place – the 12 items or less checkout. Or for when you are buying nearly all bar-coded stuff (as opposed to produce).

    In general, I hope that stores will bring back a few more cashiers and rely a bit less on the self-checkout machines.

  39. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    That’s a pet peeve of mine too. I have an uncanny ability to pick the line that includes such a person. It’s amazing. I do almost all the grocery shopping myself, but on those rare occasions when my wife is with me, I make her pick the line.

  40. Just Me says:

    Our Walmart hasn’t brought back more cashiers. They just shut down the self check outs.

    The screen for produce at our grocery store is very easy to use-or maybe I am comfortable using it. and know exactly what kind of produce I bought to eliminate confusion over which kind of apple to push.

    I think self check out mostly has its place as an express lane type register.

  41. Brainster says:

    There are three grocery stores equally distant from my house. I use almost exclusively the one with self-checkout, even though it is my estimation that particular store is about second-best on prices.

  42. physics geek says:

    While I occasionally encounter the “please remove the item from your bag and rescan” problem, I usually prefer to use the self-checkout lines. I can get in and out quickly.

  43. Neil Hudelson says:


    Personally I think self check-outs tend to be yet another convenience device which isolates people from each other. Just the computer alone has eliminated the need for face-to-face contract. Now, when you have check-outs that are automated, it eliminates yet another ‘face’ in the service sector.

    I partially agree with your statement. I use bank clerks, cashiers and the like for the very reason you state–I like the face to face interaction, and actually talking to people.

    That said, the idea that the computers isolate people (and you aren’t the only one putting this argument out, so I’m not trying to pick on you), to me seems to only be true for people over the age of, say, ~40. I am of the very first generation to have matured with the internet being widespread (I was 11 in ’96 when we got our first AOL disc). For me and my generation the computer does the opposite of what you say. It allows us to connect and interact–to deisolate if you will–in ways that my parents generation never had. Its been about half a decade since I graduated from university. When I talk to my parents about the amount of friends with whom I still keep in regular contact (daily about 30, periodically around 300) they are amazed. The amount of effort it took to keep in touch with friends when it meant hours of phone calls or writing letters guaranteed that a lot of your friends would fall by the way side when they were no longer geographically close.

    So while the computer may eliminate some of the face-to-face interactions, it’s not causing us to isolate ourselves by any means. If anything it’s doing the opposite.

  44. mantis says:

    Dude… go check the lost and found. See if anyone turned in your sense of humor.

    Maybe if your jokes weren’t mostly just stale right wing outragesof-thedayhour, they might actually be funny.

  45. b-psycho says:

    I like the self-checks, not only because they’re more convenient when you only have a few things but because you don’t end up stuck behind old folks writing a check for cat food or people that are buddies with one of the cashiers who insist on including with their soda purchase an entire conversation. My goal is to get exactly what I need and get the fuck OUT as fast as possible, if it means I have to bag a few things myself, so be it.

  46. john personna says:

    As much as the “man bites dog” story catches our attention, I can’t help but think it’s a distraction from the “dog bites man” reality.

    Part III of “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” is up.

  47. Sigivald says:

    They work fine for me, always have.

    Sometimes they’re bad, if the store got a bad system; like all computers, they’re only as good as the software.

    The goal for stores (and shopping experiences) is not “hire as many people as possible because Yay, Jobs Of Any Sort!” – it’s efficiency. Otherwise you might as well hire people to dig and fill ditches all day.

    (They’re also space-efficient; you can fit four or six self-checkouts in the space of two peopled checkout lines.)

    Lastly, I really, really, really don’t care about the idea that it “isolates” us from “one another” – the checker isn’t my buddy, and I don’t want smalltalk and socialization in a business transaction.

    Having the clerk at Safeway take an extra few seconds to badly read my name off my receipt does not make me feel happy and connected – it reveals how shallow and fake the entire “relationship” is.

  48. Ken Pierce says:

    I use only self-checkout for any time I would use an express lane — except for the very frequent occasions when the line for self-checkout is much longer than the line at the express lane, leading me to believe that my preference is widely shared. I have had no difficulty figuring out how to use the machines, for the very simple reason that I am not an effing moron. If I know that a particular store does NOT have self-checkout, that’s a reason for me to avoid it.

    Perhaps it’s simply that Wal-Mart and HEB know what the hell they are doing and therefore have highly functional, smoothly-operating self-checkout lines? Perhaps a closer examination of the data would find significant variations in customer satisfaction from one chain to another, reflecting the competence of the store that set them up?

    For whatever reason, my experience has been highly positive and I would be appalled to find myself forced to go back to the days before the self-checkout lines. Either the people who are complaining about them are really, really stupid, or else they don’t shop at HEB.

    (And no, I don’t work for, or have relatives who work for, or own shop in, HEB.)

  49. alanstorm says:

    Looks like mantis’s sense on humor is indeed hidden in an undisclosed location…

    Back to the topic: It depends greatly on the type of self-checkout device used as well. In Erie PA (at least when I lived there a few years ago), one local grocery store chain had SCDs that worked quite well – a belt-type operation where the goods were moved to the bagging area automatically. However, the local Lowe’s put in the variety where you must bag each item after scanning, which don’t work well with a cart full of stuff, or things too light to register on the bagging scale.

  50. RebeccaH says:

    I almost always use the self-checkouts when I have a limited number of items, and have never had many problems (and when I did, there was always a clerk nearby to help). When I have a big load, I go to a cashier, because the machine will make you see one to improve your purchase anyway when you go over a certain limit. I’m not intimidated by machines, and they’re fast and easy for the most part. That said, I’ve often wondered how much the store loses in small items that conveniently don’t get scanned (of course, those are the items that shoplifters can stick in a pocket or a purse when going through a manned checkout line too). I feel that someday something like barcodes will be able to detect that.

    I also use my local bank’s ATM almost exclusively, except when I need special service.

    Yes, there are plenty of people who need jobs, but those are the people who need to retrain for jobs that won’t be wiped out tomorrow by automation. And yes, sometimes it is nice to exchange a smile and a few words with an actual human. The Japanese are rapidly developing humanlike robots that can do that. I’m not saying that’s a world I’ll enjoy, but I can see it coming.

  51. Ken Pierce says:

    @ponce: Not a “failed” experiment as far as I’m concerned; I love the things. Which means that it is entirely possible that the point of the experiment was not entirely “to reduce the number of people the company had to hire” — an entirely noble goal, by the way, only objected to by Luddites — but also “to improve the customer’s experience by reducing the time spent between finding your last item and making it to your car” — an equally noble goal, and one that HEB, at least, has accomplished in spades with its very well-designed and smoothly-functioning self-checkout lanes.

    As for the people who think “but self-checkout lanes destroy the jobs of the supermarket checkout ladies” = “self-checkout lanes are a Bad Thing” — would they like to insist that all over the American Midwest people should have to give up pay-at-the-pump self-service so that we can go back to hiring gas station attendants? Would they like to get rid of all those handy little buttons on elevators so that we can give the elevator operators their jobs back? Somehow I doubt it.

  52. Chuck Pelto says:

    TO: Whomever
    RE: Belts?

    We donn need to stenking ‘belts’.

    The only time I go through the regular check out is when I have fresh produce or pastry items that don’t scan well.



  53. Pat Rich says:

    It isn’t either-or. Stores can and do offer both. And I would add that many supermarkets, maybe most, will put their worst checkers (and trainees) in the “speed” lane, especially when the store is busy, because the fastest checkers are needed to move the carts with mounds of goods quickly through the regular lanes. This is when having a couple of self-serve lanes available when one has only a few items and the fast lane is backed up is indeed customer friendly.

  54. Roux says:

    My local Albertsons eliminated the self check-out and I was hugely disappointed. In fact because of it I hardly shop there anymore. My guess is that many customers were slipping items through without ringing them up. Also I noticed the Albertsons machines were broken about a third of the time.

    They were very convenient for me but I’m not a moron like many shoppers. I know what I want and I’m usually in and out fairly quickly.

    FWIW Albertsons has one of the worst processes for checking people out. I’m not sure what it is but it’s a problem at every Albertsons I’ve ever visited.

  55. Drew says:

    Get a horse!!

  56. Ferd says:


    Agreed. Atrios even says he doesn’t really know, but he wants it to fit into his worldview of eeeeevil corporations. His words “It didn’t seem to me that the additional capital costs would really be offset by labor cost reductions.” Well, the whole “it didn’t seem” smacks of a lack of research, and a lot of looking for someone to pick on. Does he think that these machines are created in a vacuum? Doesn’t someone have to write code, build hardware, keep the things running?

    As to UX and adoption – If you’re not running the entire week’s worth of groceries through the thing, it’s not bad. The downside I think is that retailers get a discount by using us as the checker, and not passing this on to the customer. Could spur adoption by giving people 1 or 2% off on their bill.

  57. Kevin M says:

    They do need a “No Bozos” sign, though. Self-checkout is pretty slow if the folks in front of you can’t scan a barcode.

  58. tom swift says:

    Stores have a job to do – if they want customers to use something, they have to sell it. It won’t sell itself.

    With automated checkout, a reduction in service is offered. The only way to make that fly is to offer it at a reduced price. Simple Economics 101.

    If use of the auto checkout automatically knocked, say 2%, off the total on the receipt, customers would flock to them. But if there’s no advantage to the customer, why should one expect the customer to use it? The usual claim is a time savings, but I haven’t found any noticeable consistent reduction in checkout time. (As usual, Your Mileage May Vary.)

    Furthermore, a major problem yet to be addressed by the retail industry in general is that the “electronic” price (that the machine figures from the bar code) isn’t what the customer reads on a human-readable tag. It’s a rare day when I don’t get overcharged for at least one item. Human cashiers can, with some delay, address this when it’s called to their attention. The automated device, well, what can it do for you except give you a canned “Have a nice day”?

  59. john lynch says:

    Two minds on this.

    1. Self check is criticized by people who would never work as a checker because checking is too menial for them. I doubt Atrios & co. make their living checking groceries. That means someone else has to do it. The whole liberal “we fight for boring jobs we will never do ourselves” phenomenon is fascinating to me. Factory, mining, and service industry jobs suck yet liberals seem to want as many people as possible doing them. Why not try to push people into skilled jobs that only people can do that are also more interesting and useful? Of course corporations would like to lower labor costs and employ fewer people. Liberals don’t ask themselves if people really like their jobs and would rather do something else if the opportunity existed (I realize that any job is better than none.) Even if it’s too late for this generation to do something else do we really need our children to do these jobs?

    2. That being said, self check is annoying as hell because of the people ahead of me in line. Instead of having an expert checking the groceries I have to wait on the lowest common denominator.

    I work in a restaurant and my wife checks groceries. They aren’t bad jobs, but I don’t think a future where dishwashing and checking is automated would be a bad future.

  60. Bob says:

    I agree with John Lynch, but I love self checkouts, at least when the lines are comparatively short.

    It’s my belief many are stricken with temporary mental illness when faced with the daunting task of paying for merchandise. It doesn’t matter if it’s in an automated checkout, a manned checkout, or buying shit online–every 1 out of 5 persons clog the arteries of the otherwise efficient free market.

    They should instead designate checkouts for those special people who are either woefully inconsiderate, or sadistic.

  61. sestamibi says:

    I offer no opinon on the efficacy of self-checkout vs. human cashiers. What I do find ignorant, however, is the Eric Loomis/Atrios mentality that the purpose of businesses is to provide jobs.

    The purpose of business is to provide goods and services at a profit sufficient to compensate for the effort to do so and the risk of the capital invested. Whatever jobs are created are a derived demand for the product or service supplied, and the business is not only under no obligation to create any more demand for labor than warranted, but is perfectly justified in reducing its labor input if it can be more efficiently performed by capital.

  62. Bob Woods says:

    I like the self check machines. It makes it so much quicker to run in and get one or two items and not have to wait in a long line. Most folks I’ve seen who have problems with them are just not paying attention.

    True, you do have to learn how to use them and it’s up to the store to have someone there to give assistance. Those opposed to them are either opposed to new things, or just not willing to learn.

  63. David says:

    I originally thought it was a good idea. Still do for hardware stores where they are also used. But:

    – people with completely full carts
    – folks letting their infants play cashier
    – people talking on cell phones while checking out
    – people who just don’t understand the concept but still insist on using them
    – UPC labels that will not scan
    – Items that simply do not match up with any of the selections
    – Annoyingly bad, slow software
    – Too often out-of-service hardware
    – Items (e.g., ginger) too light to register on the scale
    – etc.

    I never felt that I was being taken advantage of by the grocer. But, good riddance.

  64. phwest says:

    Anything that allows me to not deal with clerks is a big plus in my book. But then I’m not much of a people person.

  65. rhhardin says:

    Self-checkouts work great for me, and they’re high school bagger winter disease preventers.

    You don’t get colds anymore in the winter if the sniffy bagger isn’t fingering your food.

  66. Pete says:

    Love self-checkouts, when enough of them are open so that I do not get stuck behind idiots occupying all stalls. As someone rightly observed, self checkout lanes are not compatible with idiots. Even with normal people they are much slower, so the store needs more of them. But apparently there are just too many idiots around us for this kind of technology.

  67. Andrea says:

    Our Stop & Shop has scan guns that can be checked out upon entering the store. I scan prices as I remove items off the shelf and put them in my cart. Ideally, I should bag the items at the same time, but I always forget my reusable bags or I forget to pick up bags when I check out the scanner or I don’t pick up enough bags. Still, it’s a nice system. When I get to the self-check out aisle, I flash my store card in front of the laser, and the machine rings up all the items I scanned. That takes about 4 seconds. Swipe my credit card & then sign for it. If I’ve bagged my items along the way, I’m out the door. If not, then I’ll grab a bunch of bags and bag the groceries at my car, because it IS a pain to bag the family’s week’s worth of groceries in the busy confined check out area. I think the WSJ said Stop & Shop was ending the self-scanner program, unfortunately.

  68. Ryan Booth says:

    What I find interesting is the new hybrid model, where all lines are technically self-checkout, but there are many floating cashiers to help people through. They will scan, bag, etc. if you want or need help.

    I’ve seen this at IKEA and I believe that it’s the wave of the future, as it maximizes efficiency. The cashiers (or CSRs) help those who look like they need help, and/or those that look suspicious, and/or those checking out expensive items, etc. Compared to standard self-checkouts, this solves the loss/theft problems and the customer service problems at the same time, while still reducing the need for cashiers. Compared to a traditional system, it allows more lanes to be open with the same number of cashiers, meaning that you check out faster and wait in line less.

  69. Spad13 says:

    @superdestroyer: Sp Exactly that why the stores I like best have both options. Hey it’s almost like giving customers options makes for a better shopping experience.

  70. ObamaisaScumbag says:

    For me it was always getting the scanned item to register on the bagging area scale. When the item was outside of the expected weight, the machine would ask me to pull the item from the bag and rescan it. The first request was not a problem, however, the 5th request was very annoying. I stopped using them for that single reason. Assuming they get that particular problem fixed, I would be happy to use them again.

  71. Tim McD says:

    @PD Shaw: Ah yes, the self service gas station. Developed by the gas companies because the PEL for employees was being exceeded, and spreading the exposure over all the customers, brought it safely under the limit! At least that one was an improvement in safety for the laid off employees.

  72. Geoff says:

    Let’s go full Luddite and break some mechanical looms.

    Actually, I agree with one of the quotes in the article. Way back when I was a cashier. What holds up the line at the self-checkout is people not knowing what they should be doing.

  73. jan says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    So while the computer may eliminate some of the face-to-face interactions, it’s not causing us to isolate ourselves by any means. If anything it’s doing the opposite.

    Good points which I won’t argue with. I am able to keep up with people visa vie the internet that surpasses other mediums as well, regarding speed and frequency of other communications. However, what I am referring to is that there is a human element missing in internet communication, even skype can’t seem to compensate for. I like talking with, touching people on the shoulder, and hugging them , when appropriate. All that is absent with the computer as the communications medium. I guess you might define it as human warmth that can’t be duplicated on the computer.

  74. Anna Keppa says:

    For me, it’s been a case of the machines not working properly, then a clerk comes along to key in a code and instruct me as to why the machine didn’t understand what I did, etc — AS IF it’s my job to understand the frickin machine!

    I told the idiot that at some point I feel like I’m working for the company rather than being served by it, and at that point the machine is “dead to me”.

  75. Marianne says:

    When the supermarket employees in my area were recently threatening to go on strike, I was very happy that both of my local stores have at least some self-checkout lanes.

    If employees don’t want their jobs automated out of existence, they should avoid causing huge problems for the busineses that write their paychecks with strikes, grievances, lawsuits, etc.

  76. Scott says:

    And here I was all set to welcome our new robot overlords.

  77. Slocum says:

    Atrios is nuts. It’s not some secret conspiracy — *of course* the idea is to hire fewer people, and that’s a very good thing. We are incredibly wealthier than we were, say, 200 years ago because we’ve spent that time figuring out how to use machines to get much more done with less human time & effort. We don’t dig ditches with hand-shovels any more. Automation hasn’t created vast armies of unemployed ditch-diggers, phone switchboard operators, buggy-whip makers, encyclopedia sales people, elevator operators, etc

  78. john personna says:


    Yes, there are plenty of people who need jobs, but those are the people who need to retrain for jobs that won’t be wiped out tomorrow by automation. And yes, sometimes it is nice to exchange a smile and a few words with an actual human. The Japanese are rapidly developing humanlike robots that can do that. I’m not saying that’s a world I’ll enjoy, but I can see it coming.

    Are there examples of retraining programs which work? I thought one of the sad realizations of late is that you can’t take a group of people self-sorted to do job X, and suddenly hand them job Y. They probably won’t love it enough to do it well.

    I think self-selection and retraining can work for the individual (if you find the Y you love), but that doesn’t really scale.

    The conversion rate is low.

  79. I say give people an option, at all times.

    maybe its because i used to be a cashier, but i have zero problem with them. so i get it done, without the annoying chatter. call me anti-social.

    also from your post it suggests that part of your problem is dealing with the conveyor belt style machines. i don’t deal with those.

    So hey, if you want a person whatever floats your boat, but… i prefer to be anti-social and get er done.

  80. shu says:

    You are at Home Depot. You are ready to check out, and have with you:
    ..items you brought into store: a small clipboard with shopping list and notes, and a tape measure.
    ..items you want to buy: six eight foot lengths of wood trim.
    You go to the self check out and learn that
    ..there is no good place to put the stuff you are holding so you can poke the screen; you don’t intend to buy the clipboard and tape measure which you brought into the store, so they cannot be put into the ‘bagging area’; the only other vacant flat surface nearby is the floor .
    ..the eight foot trim pieces must be scanned one at a time, wagging them around in front of the laser.
    ..after scanning, each item must be placed and remain in the ‘bagging area’ before the sale can proceed; the eight foot long trim sticks keep falling out of the plastic t-shirt bag.

  81. Christy says:


    I used to think they were just a helpful addition by the stores (rather than a way to eliminate checkers), until my local overnight store decided to eliminate all but self-serve lines after 9PM. I found that out when I was approaching the checkout line with a cart full of clearance items, sale items, and coupon items, all of which are always problems at the checkout. I left the cart behind and left the store. If they offered additional discounts after 9PM, to effectively pay me to be the cashier, or if they at least posted a sign that only self-serve was available after a certain hour, then I’d be more amenable. As it is, I find it both rude and cheap of them to handle late-night customers this way.

  82. Mark says:

    Self checkout is great. What if you are buying items that might embarrass (like condoms)? What if you have a thousand pennies you would like to use without wasting 7% on a coin counter machine? What if you don’t know if you have enough money and would like to choose the order in which things are scanned or want to make sure the item is the price you think it is? What if you want to pay with a combination of cash and debit card? All of these above are reasons to use self checkout and cannot easily be accomplished with a human cashier and would greatly stall the line of people waiting behind you.

  83. submandave says:

    @Anthony: The logic behind most anti-business lefty boycotts always puzzles me.

    “I’m opposed to you replacing a cashier with a machine, so I’m going to boycott you in the hope you make less money and have to lay off even more employees.”

  84. W_B says:

    They always mess up when I use them. So I don’t.

  85. Jayteee says:

    The grocery store self-checkouts aren’t bad once you figure out the system. The only hangup is with produce. If you’re not writing down the UPCs on a piece of paper as you go, the UPC lookup will slow you down. They’re also very handy if you’re making a quick run to the store and you’re not getting a lot of stuff. I find them much faster and I don’t have to wait behind some moron who didn’t see the sign for 15 items or less who is always invariably in front of me, or the lady who challenges the price of every item.

    I just don’t buy the argument that we shouldn’t have them because they cause less people to be employed. Bubcus. Technology is replacing humans throughout the economy. Fact of life now just as it will be in the future. Business has to make all kinds of decisions to ensure a profitable bottom line. Sometimes automation is the answer.

  86. T says:

    I wouldn’t mind going to the cashier if the baggers knew how to bag groceries properly. Nothing is worse than getting home after a long day of hunting and gathering to find my milk jug is dirty from the bag of potatoes because the bagger decided it was a good thing to put something dirty in with something wet, or to find my bread squashed and tomatoes crushed because they mixed hard items in with soft items, or the dish powder and laudry soap is in with food, or meat is in the same bag, well, anything else. Even when I put the groceries on the belt in the order I’d like them to be put in a bag the food is all mixed up. So…I much prefer self check-out because if the eggs get home broken, there’s only me to blame. As well, I learned the machine so I’m actually quicker than the cashier and bagger combined and I walk out happy to know that my groceries are bagged just right.

  87. Fred says:


    Well it isn’t actually a *conspiracy* but it is partly an effort to hire less people – just like at my house, where I now have an automatic thermostat, instead of a houseboy to stoke the coal furnace – and like my nice security camera setup, which means no more guard out at the gate, and my electric dishwasher, and a dozen other automatic timesaving devices which I’m sure Atrios uses every day, and never gives a thought to how many more people he could be wastefully employing.

    Of course he doesn’t really care about that. He just enjoys the superior feeling he gets from ripping on somebody else who’s only trying to save a dime, and make life better for customers.

  88. richard40 says:

    Dont mind self service gas a bit. Dont use ATM’s, partly because I like to get a lot of cash all at once infrequently, instead of getting 50$ at a time in frequent stops. Dont use self grocery checkout because I usually buy several bags worth, and would hate bagging all those bags myself. If I was just getting a few items I might consder it, Self service works when the transitaction is fairly straightforward, but if at all complicated or long, human service is much better.

  89. Phelps says:

    I prefer to use automatic systems when they work. I use ATMs and online banking exclusively. I was booking all my airline online in the 90s. I will drive past a station that has a lower rate if they don’t have pay at the pump. The sort of employees who get hired into those jobs make more mistakes than I do. If I could hit the buttons and place my order myself at the local fast food place, I would, because I would know that it was entered correctly.

    I won’t use self-checkout at a grocery store. They don’t work. Not only do they not work, but they lock themselves down until a clerk can come over and check everything out. They aren’t faster. They just seem faster because you are working rather than waiting on your way through the line. If you carry a stopwatch (and don’t account for the lines from people like me who realized that the robots don’t work) you will find out that you are faster with the traditional line. I know, I did it.

  90. ArtD0dger says:

    Please, please do not send me back to the dark ages when grocery shopping meant choosing between the regular line behind two housewives with brimming carts, or ten people in express.

    Stores will always dial down the number of cashiers until the wait is (probabilistically) significant, but self checkout runs all stations all the time. People expressing this silly make-work dogma obviously a) don’t understand economics; and b) don’t buy their own groceries.