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Our love-hate relationship with self-checkouts

Nik Martin
May 24, 2022

A retired British woman has launched a campaign to reverse the trend of cashless, humanless grocery checkouts. The technology may be her enemy, but could it soon come to her rescue?

A woman uses a self-checkout at a Tesco on April 13, 2020 in London, United Kingdom
Retailers have stepped up investment in self-checkout technology due to the COVID-19 pandemicImage: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

British pensioner Pat McCarthy was so frustrated when her local grocery store added more self-checkout tills. She set up an online petition, aiming to pressure Tesco — the UK's largest supermarket chain — to bring back more human-operated checkouts. She said the move would stop older people from being disadvantaged when paying for their produce.

"At my local Tesco store, the majority of tills are now self-service,″ the 69-year-old McCarthy told DW. ″I think an awful lot of people with disabilities — mobility issues, those who have had strokes, the blind and deaf — just can't use these tills easily."

McCarthy, whose campaign has garnered a lot of local media attention, said what was once a great shopping experience has turned into a ″nightmare.″ Her petition has so far received 120,000 signatures.

Auto-checkouts first trialed in 1980s

Self-checkouts have evolved massively since David R Humble, the president of a US electronics firm, created a prototype in the early 1980s after standing in a long line at a grocery store in Florida. After three years of trials and $5 million (€4.66 million) in investment, the first automated checkouts were installed in a Kroger store in Atlanta in 1986.

Since then, nearly half a million self-checkout systems have been installed globally, according to the London-based research house Technavio. The firm expects the rollout of the technology to grow about 18% over the next few years.

"More retailers are introducing self-service solutions — whether it be self-checkout terminals in grocery stores or self-ordering kiosks at fast-food chains," Alan Burt, associate at another UK research firm, RBR, told DW. "The technology is increasingly used in different retail sectors, including at discounters, DIY chains and even in fashion."

In its most recent report on self-checkout technology, RBR noted how European retailers Carrefour, Lidl and Kaufland were continuing to invest heavily in the technology.

A woman carries a REWE vbasket at a store in Cologne
German supermarkets have been slow to introduce self-checkouts. But REWE has trialed a store with no checkoutImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture-alliance

Germany playing catch-up

Perhaps surprisingly, Germany has lagged behind other countries. By the end of 2019, out of 117,000 self-checkout machines installed in Europe, less than 3,000 had been installed here, although the rollout had sped up.

In North America, the machines are increasingly being adopted by discounters, convenience stores and pharmacy chains. RBR expects 1.5 million self-checkout devices to be installed globally by 2026.

The COVID-19 pandemic convinced many more retailers to introduce them as they helped to allow social distancing between staff and customers. Burt also pointed to labor shortages in some countries in the wake of the health crisis that has also made retailers step up their investments.

Skeptics of employee campaigns for higher minimum wages have also pointed to self-checkout technology as an increasing threat to retail jobs, prompting unions to defend the work their members perform.

An Amazon Fresh Store in London, United Kingdom
Amazon has been trialing checkout-free stores for the past five yearsImage: Melkon Charchoglyan

Human element missing

"Shopworkers provide the customer service that many shoppers really value and we do not want to see jobs cut through the introduction of new technology," a spokesperson for the UK shopworkers' union USDAW told DW.

"There are real concerns about theft from unstaffed tills, disputes over technology errors and customer confusion on how systems work. All of these problems can be real flashpoints for abuse of shopworkers," the spokesperson added.

USDAW said retailers were often ″dazzled by new technology, chasing solutions to problems that don't exist″ and called for stores to invest in their staff instead.

Consumers, meanwhile, have developed a love-hate relationship with the technology. While many say they are useful for avoiding long lines when buying just a handful of items, feedback suggests they are frustrating to use.

In research, consumers admit that self-checkouts do free them of potential human judgment for their purchasing choices. However, a 2018 Canadian study found that a quarter of those surveyed refused to use them, even for small purchases.

A touch screen ordering system at a McDonald's store in London, United Kingdom
Some consumers say that unlike humans, self-checkout devices don't judge their purchasesImage: David Parry/empics/picture alliance

Will stores with no checkouts help?

Self-checkout technology is evolving fast, with many retailers moving to cashless and contactless payment, which should help shoppers with mobility issues. The future is likely to mean no checkout at all.

Five years ago, Amazon Fresh was the first to trial artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms that allow customers to walk out of their stores without physically paying for their groceries. Scanners and cameras identify purchases as customers shop and won't charge them for any items they put back. Upon leaving, their credit cards are automatically billed.

Consumers must scan a QR code on entry to the store and must have the Amazon app to double-check their purchases. Any discrepancies can normally be resolved with a couple of clicks.

Amazon launches next wave of disruption

Burt from RBR told DW that many other retailers are now piloting the technology. They include major supermarket chains like Sainsbury's in the UK and Germany's REWE.

While any new technology will be difficult at first for less tech-savvy consumers, checkout-free stores may offer advantages for older and disabled customers, if they can get used to being watched continuously while they shop.

McCarthy is unconvinced, noting how many older customers still don't trust credit and debit cards. "An awful lot of people simply prefer cash,″ she told DW, asking that stores bring back more staffed tills to give people ″a shopping experience they enjoy."

Edited by: Hardy Graupner