Self Checkout Is Technological Train Wreck

I think I have discovered a new condition that I may suffer from.

OK, it may not be in any medical journal yet, but I am quite sure it is coming. I am going to call it SCAM, which is short for self-checkout anxiety meltdown.

I dislike self-serve checkouts and I don’t believe it when I am told it is going to save time and money.

Management says it saves jobs? I doubt that too. In any event, whether I like it or not, as we all know, the do-it-all-yourself trend is here and doesn’t seem to be going away.

While I try to avoid it, there are times when there is not much choice, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want to do it.

Stay with me on this as I tell you about one particularly bad self-checkout experience I had a month ago.

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After forgetting to buy a few grocery items at one store, I happened to be passing by another large local grocery store that happened to have self-checkout terminals. I stopped in and picked up the few items I had forgotten, and was in one of those dreaded situations where the line up to visit a cashier seemed a mile long, while all of the self-checkout machines were empty.

Being in a hurry, I decided to be “that guy,” and check myself out. This particular self-checkout machine judged me before I pressed any buttons. Presumably pre-programmed with the exact weight of every individual grocery item, it was fitted with a scale in the baggage area to weigh each item after scanning. The logic? This machine will be sure to catch you if you try to sneak an item into the bagging area without scanning it. Silly me for not placing the item in the exact right spot. I got yelled at by a robot. Machine 1 – Me 0. It didn’t defeat me in some quest to steal groceries, it defeated me in keeping my dignity. I am not a thief.

Next, my 9 year old, who was with me and always likes to help, attempted to begin bagging the first couple of items while I was scanning the rest. Big mistake. This messed with the scale weight, and we needed to get a supervisor’s help clearing the error code. It would appear that she needed to check to be sure that we weren’t stealing the cereal boxes that I in fact scanned. Damn, and here I thought I had found the location for the perfect crime. Machine 2 – Me 0.

We accidentally displeased the scale two more times and the supervisor had to come back each time. She attempted to explain to my 9 year old that the sensor works just like the ones at traffic lights that switch the signal only when there is a car. FYI, my 9 year old doesn’t drive, and had no idea what she was talking about. Machine 3 – Me 0.

By the time we finally got out of that situation, I felt like an absolute crook. Forget the old mantra “the customer is always right.” In the case of these judgemental, finicky self-checkout machines, the customer is wrong before they even arrive. A few stores I have been to with self-checkouts employ people to stand at the exit and check the receipts of those who used them.

It is hard not to blurt out, “I’m sorry, but I don’t work here, so either trust me, or hire cashiers.” In fact, readers may not realize that if you are sure you scanned and paid for every single item in your cart, those items are your property, and no store employee has the authority to prevent you from exiting the store with your property.

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When I was a teenager I worked at a ShopRite supermarket. I boxed and bagged. I quit after four months. Why? I hated it! So for the life of me I can’t understand why I have to work at a grocery store now, at 48?

Why do I have to ring up my own groceries?

Why do I have to bag my own groceries? Why do I have to get yelled at by the robot tyrant? “Please put the item in the bagging area.” Hey. I’m trying, but the “bagging” area isn’t big enough to fit a pack of chewing gum.

Memo to grocery store owners: Have you seen me in the break room? No? There is a good reason: I am not employed by you! I don’t want to work for you! I was terrible at it in high school, and I’m clearly worse now.

And it’s not just grocery stores. Seemingly I work at Delta, too, where I now book my own flight, tag my own bags, and drop them on the belt. I also have part time jobs at Target, CVS, Walmart, Home Depot, and even Mcdonald’s.

Again, it’s not like I want to go to self-checkout. It’s that these giant chains are firing cashiers to save money. The last time I went to my local supermarket, there were ten self-checkout stands open but only two live cashiers. The lines for them went all the way back to the Purina Dog Chow. I had no choice but to do it myself. I had weekend plans.

“But they’re faster,” says management. Doesn’t feel like it. About every other time at the supermarket, the self check-out thinks my balsamic vinegar is liquor or mistakes my cantaloupe for Napa Cabbage or I do some tiny thing wrong and the machine barks: “Help is on the way.” But help is not on the way. Help is over there trying to extricate the old man’s checkbook out of the receipt slot.

(Photo taken by Alisha Jucevic for the Wall Street Journal)

But at least you don’t have to worry about the potential incompetence of the cashiers. Right? Think again. Now you have to worry about the incompetence of every other person checking out in front of you, the programmers who made the system, designers, manufacturers, engineers and the attendant who’ll inevitably be called in to assist you every time the machine fails (which is most every time).

But they cut down on costs, right? Wrong, they don’t. They increase the prevalence of shoplifting. One study found that almost a third of people have admitted to stealing while putting items through self-checkout kiosks. Another study in Australia found that nearly 1 in 5 admitted to stealing and of those 57% did it because the contrary machines wouldn’t scan their items. USA today reported that theft is up to five times higher with self-checkout than when cashiers are working.

When you think about it, stores (in a way) are accessories to the increased crime. Self-checkout is so aggravating that people think: As long as this big box store is making me work, I warrant a little employee discount, right?

But Big Brother (the megacorp) is protecting your privacy with self-checkout lanes, right? Sure they are, unless you don’t mind your personal information being breached along with 56 million other customers as happened when hackers compromised self-checkout machines at a Home Depot recently. Also who cares about what you buy? Everyone buys all the same things all the time, that’s why these items are always stocked. We’re not special. Nobody cares. Just another worthless argument put forth by the big box stores to justify their technological abominations.

(Photo taken by Bloomberg)

Why Does Self-Checkout Turn Me Inside Out? Let me count the ways:

  • They are not set up to check out easily. There is not enough “counter” space. I have to reach into my basket, get one thing out, scan it, and put it into the bagging area. Then when the bagging area is full what do I do? Move my basket (which still has things I need to check out) near the bagging area and put the bagged goods in the basket with goods that have not yet been scanned? No! The machine beeps for that! 
  • Whenever I have something too big to place in a bag, like dog food, the machine freezes because no weight is added to the bagging area.
  • Invariably, I have some transaction that needs an attendant override: a bottle of wine, cough syrup, etc.
  • Everyone in front of me has some cashier overrides, so everyone is waiting for an attendant for “self checkout.” Often the attendant has to spend more time correcting errors and doing overrides than simply ringing up the order in the first place.
  • If there is an error with the machine reading something, the whole system freezes up. I can’t go on scanning other items until the attendant gets there to help with the item in error.
  • These check-out stations always seem to break down, it seems like you rarely see a store with all of its machines in full working order. Coupled with less cashiers, this leads to further delays and a frustrating experience for the consumer.

I could go on, but what’s the point? The maddening glitches are countless.

Whatever happened to human interaction?

Ok, this point may seem a bit soppy, but I feel it’s relevant. While I don’t think check-out counter small talk is a stand-in for more meaningful conversation and in-person connections, I do think it’s a reminder of our interconnectedness in the world. We do sometimes owe people attention and reciprocity, especially when we are benefitting from their attention or services. I want to live in a world of people, not screens. Even if I sometimes make a fool of myself at the register or say something I’m sure the cashier has heard 20 times that day. I’d rather that than a world of transactional silence or robot badgering

So now we are back at self-checkout anxiety meltdown (SCAM). Here you are trying to scan products, juggle boxes and bags, fill the containers, find your debit card, pay, and make sure you didn’t forget something.

Oh, and have the receipt handy because they likely don’t trust that you’ve checked yourself out properly and will need to see that as you exit the checkout area. That is both insulting and a pain in the butt. And yes, I can lose the receipt between the register and the front door after such an irritating experience.

Then you do the checklist: wallet, keys, phone, child, wife, small dog? Receipt?

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Could we ever see a world without self-checkouts?

Yes, if customers refuse. Businesses are looking for creative ways to cut labor costs, and if they can figure out how to convince customers how to do more work, they’ll do it. Consumers need to vote with their pocketbook. After my exasperating experience at a self-checkout a month ago. I found myself at my local supermarket the other night after work and filled my cart. The staff said to go to self-checkout and I just walked away, because my thinking was, “I’m not going to stand here and scan 60 items.”

Why do we have to put up with this from a glorified vending machine? I know how to scan a barcode, cyber-jerk, don’t tell me to remove the last item from the bagging area. Go ahead, call the attendant. I dare you. I will put my fist through your screen. I’ll go home bleeding with some computer chips lodged into my knuckles, but I’ll be completely satisfied.

Sorry, I got a little carried away but I’m sure many of you have felt the same way. I want to spend precisely zero minutes per day thinking about the minutia involved in a self-checkout. Why would anyone want to use a crappy, unresponsive touch screen while a condescending pre-recorded message nags you about removing items that the machine mistakenly thinks haven’t been scanned yet?

What’s a person to do? We all need to shop at one time or another. Relax, settle in, bring a book and wait your turn. Keep your humanity and you will feel, trust me, a whole lot better.

I have a friend that hates self-checkout, too, but he’s got a take that makes him feel better. Once he finishes checking out, he turns to the “checker” at the door and wisecracks: “You need my address?”

Checker: “Address?”

My friend: “To send my paycheck”

Witty? Yes, but not for me. You’ll never catch me ever again at a self-checkout station. Life is too short.

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