Self-checkout is a Failure of Customer Service

Well, there’s no denying it – technology is changing the way we work and live.

Technology, it seems, is on a boundless march forward and you can hardly turn anywhere without seeing its imprint.

Some of technologies’ presence has been positive. Advancements made to medical screening and detection services has been a clear positive. The presence of technology in other fields, however, has brought more dubious change.

Self-checkout machines are perhaps the most glaring example of both the automation we experience in everyday life and of the certain effects of technology. As convenient as the machines may seem at times, their sheer prevalence forces the question: what are the true costs of self-checkout machines?

The first self-checkouts appeared almost 30 years ago, and now there are predicted to be 1.2 million of the machines in stores around the world by 2025.

What we’re told about self-checkout machines

We’re told they’re positive, as they decrease wait times and respond to the desires of customers, who appreciate the convenience of the machines.

What we’re not told about self-checkout machines

Wait times may indeed be less with the presence of self-checkout machines, but reality is a lot more complicated and can’t be summed up in one issue. With the purported positives of automation (of which decreased wait times appears to be the only one), comes a bevy of negatives. The negatives include:


From Facebook and social media sites where we interact with friends online, to the preference of texting over speaking on the phone, there’s a need for more, not less, human interaction. There appears to be a cost to eschewing human contact in favour of technological convenience. Studies show that the use of social media sites is linked to depression and anxiety, which in turn can upend a person’s whole life. Maybe what we need is not the “convenience” of automated cashiers, but more human interaction. When we got through the checkout with a cashier, the cashier speaks with us. When we go through an automated checkout, a machine speaks to us. We’re not saying that speaking with us as opposed to to us will be determinative of happiness and health, but it’s safe to say that speaking to us will not help matters.

Job losses

As the use of automated cashiers grow, the jobs of real, human cashiers, are increasingly precarious as stores reduce their personnel in favour of machines.  While some stores have semi-assisted customer activated terminals (SACAT), which do employ assistants to aid customers in using the machines, these jobs cannot make up the difference in jobs lost to automation. One has to wonder: why not hire humans to work the checkouts? Why go through the rigmarole of hiring humans to assist humans in using machines doing a job humans used to do?

On the more extreme side of the spectrum, Amazon has recently opened stores that require no cashiers at all. When a customer shops at one of these stores, the barcodes of the items get scanned on their way out and their amazon account is automatically charged. From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense to use machines to cut labour costs. From a broader, more human perspective, it’s a callous and inept approach to customer service that dehumanizes the whole process of shopping.

Shifting labour onto unpaid consumers.

Automated checkouts require us, the consumers, to scan and bag our own items, effectively usurping tasks once performed by employees. In other words, self-checkouts save companies in payroll costs only by making unpaid workers of us all. Though, to many, that might not seem concerning, consider the dangerous precedent it sets; first, as stated, it normalizes for employers that customers are willing to do the work of employees. As a result, it threatens the jobs of human employees. Finally, the loss of jobs that could result to employees is likely to increase reliance on government aid. Ultimately, the employer saves on payroll costs by relying on unpaid customers, reducing personnel, and shifting the costs to the government, which we all bear via our taxes.

What we can do …

One certainty in life is that businesses which depend on consumer satisfaction will respond to consumer demand. We could make changes to our service experience by demanding that stores employ enough human cashiers to tend to its customers. Avoiding stores that do not provide human cashiers at checkouts could be an especially powerful statement. As consumers we speak with our wallets. Let’s tell employers it’s time to put the human back in customer service jobs.


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