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On Self-Checkout at Supermarkets

[ 91 ] September 27, 2011 |

Atrios points us to this piece on supermarkets pulling back from the self-checkout stands.

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.

It’s rare that we so obviously see how corporations seek to lay people off. It’s even rarer that the capitalist plan to employ no one doesn’t advance. So this is a good thing.

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  1. Bill Murray says:

    Patton Oswalt was all over this a couple years ago. I don’t know how much kumquats cost

  2. witless chum says:

    My library has been big into this, too. But at least out front there aren’t less people. There were two people on the desk before and there still are.

    Last time I was there, I used the stupid thing and I ended up taking a lot longer because the CD/DVD unlocker kept jamming. It’s fine just for books, but I’d hate to see the public library employing fewer people.

    • NonyNony says:

      If your library is using self-checkout, but still using those stupid “locking” devices on their CDs and DVDs, that indicates that someone in the administration is “unclear on the concept” of self-checkout. You can’t use a library self-checkout in situations where you don’t completely trust your patrons – it just doesn’t work.

      So either you trust them not to steal the material – and you don’t need locking devices – or you DON’T trust them and you make sure you have someone monitoring to ensure that everything that leaves the building actually gets associated with a patron record. Attempting to set something up where you trust them to scan everything they take out but you still make them unlock the CDs/DVDs before they leave the building is just … stupid.

      • witless chum says:

        They have alarms that go off if you try to walk out with a book that hasn’t been checked out, self-check out or otherwise. It’s the system where each book has a sticker in it that somehow gets deactivated by placing it on a black pad after you scan the barcode.

    • Tybalt says:

      Your library is undoubtedly embracing self-checkout as a means of keeping more branches open for longer on the same budget, which I happen to think is admirable. I don’t necessarily think what the grocery stores are doing is wrong, either. Replacing labour with capital isn’t a value choice.

      As for the reality of self-checkout, I don’t like them but my kids adore them. They love the self-checkout, so we always use it.

      • witless chum says:

        Yes, it is a value choice. Especially in the public sector. Even if it’s a correct value choice, such as you portray. But I don’t think that’s the reality of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The KPL budget had only a small cut in personnel between 2009 and 2010, the most recent budget that’s online.

  3. Kurt Goldstein says:

    Actually, if you are a guy like me who is almost always buying less than ten items that almost always have bar codes, these are great. I only ever see people needing help when they are buying booze.

  4. Ruviana says:

    I tried to use one once and it ATE my ATM card! Never again!

  5. actor212 says:

    My experience with self-serve checkouts is mixed. I’d say 40% of the time, I end up having the overseer come over to clear some error, like a bad bar code or “The weight of the item you placed in the bag does not equal the weight of the item scanned”

    Which usually happens when I decide I need to double-bag groceries.

    It’s a good idea for those times when the place is crowded, to be sure. It still saves time, even calling someone over, and part time employees come and go like night and day around me, so there’s always a shortage of cashiers.

  6. c u n d gulag says:

    I hate these damn things.

    My all time favorite job-cutting move was banks, though.

    I remember, 30+ years ago, on pay-day, you had to, HAD TO, wait in line at the bank to cash your check or deposit it. On 23rd St and Park Ave, there was a HUGE Chase Bank, with something like 20-30+ tellers on a Friday.
    And if you wanted cash, you had to go to the bank and withdraw money. From a living teller.

    Then, they came up with those bank cards, and it was “Bye-bye” tellers!
    But it was ok for awhile, and free, no matter what bank you had your money in, you could go to any ATM and get your cash.

    Then, they started to charge you money if you got your money from an ATM that wasn’t your bank’s.

    And then, both THAT bank, AND your bank, both charged you fees for getting your money from an ATM that wasn’t your banks.

    No human being was involved. No salary, no benefits, but you got dinged for accessing your money from a centralized computer system.

    And all of this is done with a fraction of the people that worked in banks until the early or mid-80′s.

    Nice work – if you don’t have to employ anyone!

    • Trollhattan says:

      Yup, exactly like the attack of the ATMs. Put a box or two out front, get rid of half the tellers to make the inside lines huge…buh-bye tellers.

      I admit it’s weird to drive through Oregon and have somebody else fill my gas tank. Been a long time since we’ve had pump jockeys.

      • sanbikinoraion says:

        I just rented a car in the US for 4 days and in 3 fill-ups, 2 were full-service: one in upstate PA and the other about a mile from Newark airport.

        Both times it would have been faster for me to do it myself – the second time because the pumper was chatting up a lady in a different car.

        I love self-checkouts.

    • Bill Murray says:

      The first taste is free, drug dealers have the best business plan

  7. BJN says:

    See, personally I find them much, much faster than regular checkouts. The only thing holding them back is waiting in line behind confused and angry old people talking about how robots are stealing their medication and card check is necessary to revitalize the American labor movement.

  8. Western Dave says:

    Sorry but I love the good machines. The ones ACME and ShopRite have are intuitive and obvious and work well. One person monitors the checkout for about six machines and if there’s a problem they are right there. Further, I usually catch scan errors that I miss when the check-out person does it (they tend to ring up the vegetables they know, rather than the vegetables I bought). There are some scams to watch for and some bad versions of the machines (Superfresh/Pathmark bought just awful ones that break frequently and make you do things in a particular order whereas the ACME machine you can do your card and coupon whenever.)

    The self-checkout is a godsend for busy parents (especially shopping with kids – everybody gets a job) and there’s no candy in the self-checkout line. Also in Pennsylvania we can’t buy alcohol in the supermarket so ID check isn’t an issue.

    In the smaller urban stores I frequent, they didn’t take out check out lanes to put them in, they actually took out shelf/display space. It seems counter-intuitive but their biggest problem in these stores is they only have four check-out lanes to begin with. I would just not shop at 4:30 pm because there was no way I could get in and out and to daycare by 5:30. Now, not a problem. I could see how in bigger stores they might be job replacement machines but if anything, they’ve kept these smaller groceries in business. I’m not doing once a week shopping at a big suburban store miles a way as opposed to stopping at one of the stores that is yards off my 3 mile commute home.

  9. bobbyp says:

    Sure. But if you take all your fresh vegetables thru the self-serve, you can have the lowest weight foodstuffs evah! For the creative–enter your own cost codes.

  10. Warren Terra says:

    I quite disagree. A well-designed, well implemented machine (the kind with the conveyor belt, NOT the kind with the scales, which are constantly detecting spurious items and make or hard to use you own bags) is great. I check out quickly, and can avoid social interaction: what’s not to love?
    We are a wealthy country: people willing to work deserve a job and a wage worthy of their time and dignity. If their efforts can satisfactorily be replaced by a few thousand dollars of computer and conveyor belt, that shouldn’t be a problem but an opportunity; our society should ensure that it is made richer by the change, and not poorer. Surely some job can be found for these people that isn’t so demonstrably unnecessary, thereby enriching our society and justifying their wages rather than wasting their time as an overpriced substitute to a simple machine?

    • djw says:

      We are a wealthy country: people willing to work deserve a job and a wage worthy of their time and dignity. If their efforts can satisfactorily be replaced by a few thousand dollars of computer and conveyor belt, that shouldn’t be a problem but an opportunity; our society should ensure that it is made richer by the change, and not poorer. Surely some job can be found for these people that isn’t so demonstrably unnecessary, thereby enriching our society and justifying their wages rather than wasting their time as an overpriced substitute to a simple machine?

      This paragraph expresses a reasonable sentiment about some other wealthy society in some alternative universe, but not this one. One needn’t be a hard-core Marxist to note that the technological innovations of capitalist development have frequently not coincided with new employment opportunities for those whose jobs they’ve eliminated, and that more often then not, that’s not treated as a significant problem by the relevant powerful actors. A good case in point would be the present day, in which the substantial majority of political elites seem remarkably untroubled by a very sudden and dramatic spike in long term unemployment. Under such conditions, resisting technological innovations that reduce jobs and have few tangible auxilliary benefits for society seems justified, practical, and humane.

      • It’s not that I disagree with you as a practical matter, but all things considered I don’t really understand why, from a pure advocacy standpoint, we ought to be arguing against technological advancement and so on. And how far are we going to take it, really? Just how much productivity do we want to wring out of the system, and how many people do we want to force back in to soul sucking menial manufacturing work?

        It seems to me that if we’re just looking at this as a matter of advocacy, we ought to be arguing for an optimal outcome. And from that standpoint, the more menial tasks that can be done by machines, the more leftover people we have that can be put to work doing other things. The fact that we don’t do a good job of that doesn’t really mean that we can’t.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          If this work was real rather than theoretical, I wouldn’t disagree with you. However, given that much work is increasingly theoretical, this isn’t very useful.

          • What’s theoretical about it? I live reasonably close to Baltimore city, and am quite comfortable in saying Baltimore city could use a lot more cops. We could hire a lot of people to do that if we wanted to. We won’t, of course, but that’s because public policy sucks, not because “Baltimore city police officer” is a “theoretical job.” It’s no more theoretical than the menial manufacturing jobs you’re imagining anyway.

            So again, I don’t really get why we ought to focus advocacy in the direction of sub-optimal policy and less appealing labor.

            • Malaclypse says:

              So again, I don’t really get why we ought to focus advocacy in the direction of sub-optimal policy and less appealing labor.

              I have to agree. There was a name for a movement of people dedicated to resisting the use of technology to change labor relations. History is not kind to the Luddites.

              • Linnaeus says:

                I don’t know if you’re being snarky or not, but it always strikes me as a bit sad that the term “Luddite” often gets thrown out there without any real understanding of the Luddites’ historical context.

                I’m sure you know what that context is. But a lot of people don’t.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  I was not trying to be snarky. Look, if any labor group in the industrial era had a legitimate gripe against capitalism, it was British textile workers. That was an ugly, ugly period.

                  As far as doomed social movements go, the Luddites have a lot to admire, and the story has real tragedy. And if the Luddites were the tragedy (and I think they were), then self-serve checkouts are the farce.

                • Warren Terra says:

                  I’m with you on the frequent traducing of the Luddites.

                  On the other hand, this is one of the rare circumstances where the name applies: the Luddites were concerned that new technologies were making their labor unnecessary and worthless, and that the mill owners would reap all the benefits of mechanization and the displaced workers receive none.

                  This is exactly the fear expressed with self-checkout stations at the supermarket: (1) technology is making checkout workers unnecessary, and (2) the supermarket chains are reaping the benefits while nothing is done for the displaced workers. The debate in this thread largely seems to focus on whether we can do something about the second part, or can only stand athwart the first part yelling “Stop!”

                • Linnaeus says:

                  Okay, I get it now. Both of you (Malaclypse and Warren Terra) are making use of the term Luddite with actual reference to its history. I was referring to how it’s often used in a dismissive or pejorative sense, but that doesn’t apply here.

                  Even if technological displacement seems inevitable, it’s still worth pointing out the social costs of technological innovation, if for nothing more than to figure out how to mitigate those costs. But we’re faced with the “bird in hand is worth two in the bush” problem; as menial as a particular job may be, the worker in question may still prefer it to a hypothetical “better” job that may or may not come. And while we’re discussing how to bring about those better, less menial jobs, those displaced don’t always have the luxury of time that we do here.

        • djw says:

          And how far are we going to take it, really?

          Well, as a practical matter my meagre consumption choices don’t put me in a position to take it very far. And when the productivity/convenience is substantial I’m not opposed to embracing said technology–I’m clearly part of the reason a bunch of USPS workers are about to lose their jobs, as I haven’t sent a letter in years and I’ll probably never send one again.

          That said, the calculus here seems really simple. The productivity/convenience gain, insofar as it even exists, is exceedingly trivial. Checkers, especially at unionized stores, often earn something vaguely approaching a decent wage. Relatively low-skilled, no college necessary jobs that pay such wages are tremendously important for large portions of the middle class, and increasinly rare, and often under attack from above. I don’t claim to have a grand theory about how to weigh productivity/convenience against labor solidarity in all cases, and I don’t pretend to, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see a pretty easy case when I see one.

    • Linnaeus says:

      Surely some job can be found for these people that isn’t so demonstrably unnecessary, thereby enriching our society and justifying their wages rather than wasting their time as an overpriced substitute to a simple machine?

      Well, there’s “ought” and then there’s “is”.

    • Bill Murray says:

      Maybe some rich person needs a personal shopper or perhaps a squeegee line can be made in the parking lot

  11. Yosemite Semite says:

    People said that about cars, too. As for employing less people, that’s what increasing productivity is about. Or are you in favor of reintroducing all those nice telephone operators and guys swinging scythes to harvest grain?

  12. And you just know it is a matter of time before merry pranksters work out how to hack the things. Best case scenario – they start spitting out cash. Most likely scenario – your credit card info winds up in Russia.

    The local CVS added SCO earlier this year and it seems they now have MORE clerks. Where they used to have just one or two people at the register they now also have one or two people standing by to help with the SCO machines. Newspapers, for example, always foul them up because the weight changes daily.

    It’s also kind of odd to me that stores started introducing them since there are now so many things that you must purchase from a human being. (Cigs and semi-OTC meds come to mind. I’ve even seen things like baby formula locked up in the local grocery.)

    • mark f says:

      The local CVS added SCO earlier this year and it seems they now have MORE clerks.

      Where is this CVS? All the ones around here seem to employ two cashiers only: a doddering old lady, and an idiot teenager splitting time between the register and the photo booth. If a line of more than three customers forms they send one on break.

  13. Yellow Dog says:

    I got into a huge fight with the manager at Kroger over those damn things. I had two items and was standing patiently behind several people with loaded carts when this officious asshole actually tried to PUSH me to the self-serve line.

    “I do NOT use those,” I told him in a loud voice. “They eliminate jobs.”

    “No, they don’t,” he said in exactly the patronizing tone of voice that begs for a lethal beating.

    “They most certainly DO KILL JOBS” I responded in an even louder voice and a nasty look.

    I swear, ever since then, the cashiers have been extra-nice to me.

  14. Hanspeter says:

    The Stop & Shop here not only has self checkout lanes, you can also get personal scanners at the front door that you can then carry around the store and scan items as you pick up and bag them in your shopping cart. There are scales in the veggies/fruit section where you punch in the code and weigh the item, slap the printed sticky label on the bag, scan it and into the cart it goes. Then at checkout, you scan a barcode over the register, your scanner tells the register everything you bought, you add any extra items that didn’t get scanned before, swipe your card/insert cash, and out the door you go.

    The biggest benefit is that you are able to see what the machine will charge you with plenty of time to tell a floor worker that either the sticker price is wrong or the machine is wrong, which is always adjusted in the customer’s favor. Plus you can buy tons of groceries and still go through the ’10 or less’ lane because you are not sitting there scanning forever.

    There are occasional checks by an employee (less than 10% of the time) to make sure everything you bagged was actually scanned, but those take literally less than 60 seconds.

    This method is vastly faster, easier, and more convenient than a full service checkout or a self-serve checkout that inevitably has someone who takes 10x longer than the average person.

    And yes, self serve checkouts with scales suck.

    • Thlayli says:

      For whatever reason, my store has decided you can’t use the hand-scanner at the self-checkout lanes. You have to give the scanner and your little “mark of the beast” card to a cashier, and she rings you up.

      • Warren Terra says:

        I don’t know about your store, but at my store I never turned in the identification for mthey hand you with the loyalty cards and they work for the discounts just fine despite not being linked to any user information, even after over a year.
        Mind you, it means I believe I can’t redeem my own-bags points for cash (at a nickel a bag), and if they’re cross-referencing with my credit card they know to whom my loyalty card belongs – but if they’re cross-referencing with my credit card they know who I am anyway.

        • Hanspeter says:

          My loyalty card is to a non-existent name in a non existant address. I always get my 5 cents off from reusable bags[1] and when I manage to get enough points and a low enough gas tank at the sadly not nearby S&P that has a gas station, I can redeem them there for the 10c/100pts without any problems.

          During checkout, the 5c off works like you’re adding a new produce item, press the screen icon, and it gets taken off the final total.

  15. pv says:

    Is there evidence that the self-checkout lanes actually require fewer employees? In my experience, stores do not have every checkout lane open (usually fewer than half are open). In theory, moving one employee from a cashier of a single checkout lane to an overseer of four self-checkout machines allows seven customers to be check out at a time rather than four, with the very same number of employees. It wouldn’t necessarily reduce the number of employees, but rather make the checkout experience faster for customers with the same number of employees. I don’t know if this is the way it commonly works in practice or not, but I’d like to see data rather than assumption.

    • NonyNony says:

      Personally I think that the self-service lanes are a red herring when it comes to eliminating positions – they may have had visions of massive downsizing, but it actually sometimes seems like grocery stores had to add people to the rolls to deal with the machines. I know one of the stores in the area jumped from one old security guard at the front to 3 within a year of their self service machines going in (and it’s not like the neighborhood is deteriorating or anything like that).

      On the other hand – getting rid of dedicated baggers (remember when stores had THOSE) was definitely an “employ less people” move. And it’s killed customer service in the name of saving a few bucks. A store with good baggers used to be a treasure – few people understand that good bagging is a learned skill, and fewer people seem to know how to do it. Especially those stupid plastic bags.

      Grumble grumble – people need to get off my lawn.

      • Bill Murray says:

        I doubt they are a red herring, more herring that is going to start smelling in a few years when enough people have been trained to accept their role as checkout people and then will not have human run checkout lanes at all. i still doubt they will honor my demand to be paid to do the checkers job then either

  16. [...] 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. [...]

  17. [...] 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. [...]

  18. Dirk Gently says:

    “My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it!”

    But seriously, I’m largely with Warren Terra above. Using technology to eliminate menial jobs is not the problem. Structural inequities which create and perpetuate the conditions in which human beings are only really good for menial labor is the problem. You good Marxists’ beef is with ongoing poverty, ongoing educational failures, etc., not with machines that, in my experience, are faster and work perfectly well in particular situations (i.e. 25-ish items or less).

    I can’t believe that people invoke Marx to argue for the retention of menial labor–is that not the very DEFINITION of alienated labor?

    Look, not everyone can be Steve Jobs and contribute something original and useful to a so-called “knowledge economy” that has yet to materialize for something like 98% of the planet, but the goal is not to make everyone special, it’s to give everyone the opportunity to work with dignity–something at the core of nearly every major thinker in the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.

    I conceded that we’d be better off reforming the structures first before we go about axing such jobs. I guess I’m just pushing back against this implied notion that we should want to keep such jobs around for any other reason than that our totally fucked system would not “catch” these people who lost their jobs to robots.

    • Bill Murray says:

      But since these don’t have to be menial jobs and many people do not consider them to be such, the Marxist critique may still hold

    • djw says:

      Well, look–we live in a world where people desperately need jobs, even the menial ones (a list that contains much, much worse than supermarket checker). That’s something that it would be a good idea to change, and insofar as there are political opportunities to do so, all efforts to seize them should be made. But we also live in the world as it is now, where a) capital will look to cut labor costs wherever they can, and b) new, better jobs (or, for that matter, equivalent or worse jobs) are unlikely to be available for a majority of them for a very long time. As long as we’re stuck in that world, solidarity with labor seems appropriate, especially when the costs of that solidarity are completely trivial.

    • dangermouse says:

      I guess I’m just pushing back against this implied notion that we should want to keep such jobs around for any other reason than that our totally fucked system would not “catch” these people who lost their jobs to robots.

      Their jobs aren’t being replaced by robots.

      Their jobs are being replaced by other people doing their jobs, except for free.

      • Linnaeus says:

        George Ritzer talks about this in his book, “The McDonaldization of Society.” One of the aspects of McDonaldization is saving labor (for the business) by pushing more labor onto the consumer.

        • LKS says:

          When I was living in California circa 1990, the Safeway down the road put in a little seating area inside where you supposedly could sit and eat whatever you bought at the deli or Chinese takeaway. For some reason, one day I wanted to sit and eat there instead of taking it home. Every table was filthy. I complained to the deli worker, and he told me (exact quote), “The customers are supposed to keep it clean.”

          I thought maybe this was just some deli worker having a bad day, but when I complained to the store’s shift manager, I got essentially the same answer. They’d put this seating area in apparently thinking they had no moral or legal responsibility to keep it clean. I asked the shift manager if he thought the health department would agree with that.

          A couple weeks later, the seating area was gone. I won’t claim it was because of the issue of who was responsible for bussing the tables. For all I know, it was because some bean counter decided the square footage was too valuable to waste on tables and chairs. But it was gone.

  19. Halloween Jack says:

    I have no problem with using these, unless the scanner glass gets smudged (and some stores have paper towels handy for just this eventuality), and it saves me from coming home with a dozen plastic bags because the checkout clerk puts a maximum of three items in each bag, and double-bags anything heavier than a loaf of bread. (I try to remember to bring my own bags, but don’t always succeed.)

    • Ed says:

      I have no problem with using these, unless the scanner glass gets smudged (and some stores have paper towels handy for just this eventuality), and it saves me from coming home with a dozen plastic bags because the checkout clerk puts a maximum of three items in each bag, and double-bags anything heavier than a loaf of bread.

      It’s actually quite easy to ask the checker or bagger to fill your bag. The only risk in my experience is the bagger that takes you too literally.

      We are a wealthy country: people willing to work deserve a job and a wage worthy of their time and dignity.

      Skilled supermarket checkers in unionized stores have these things. It isn’t rocket science but it is dignified work that requires efficiency and knowledge to do it well.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        It’s actually quite easy to ask the checker or bagger to fill your bag.

        Well, yes, but I have actually had arguments with checkers who are reluctant to do so because of that one time that the bag broke open.

  20. Tomk says:

    What did we used to call those young men who pumped gas and washed our windshields?

    • Hanspeter says:

      We call them residents of Oregon and New Jersey.

      • Malaclypse says:

        I grew up just over the PA border with Jersey. A friend of mine crossed the bridge to work at a gas station. I asked him why he did the horrible commute for a bad job.

        My job is great, he said. People love me, because I always offer to check their oil, and nobody does that any more. And I know how to hold the dipstick on a rag just so, and make them always look a quart low. I keep one empty quart, that I sell over and over again, and pocket the money. I can pull in one, maybe two hundred cash a day, plus my wage.

  21. Western Dave says:

    I think the evidence from the article suggests that the machines don’t lead to lower labor costs, or they wouldn’t be rolling them back.

    • dangermouse says:

      At most places I’ve seen where they have these things they generally have at least one person watching the four or whatever self-checkers, and that’s allowing for the zero-deep line the machines always have. If customers ever used the machines to the same degree they use manned cashier lines I can’t imagine you’d need significantly less than one person per open checkout line to make sure your customers aren’t stealing from you.

      • Western Dave says:

        Precisely, because the people who aren’t using the self-checkout would suck at it and jam them up and you’re right back where you started except with unhappy customers. Having four self-checkouts replace 1 express lane is a win-win. (or in the cases of the stores I mentioned above, self-scan replace the DVD bin – which is now a redbox outside the store).

  22. wengler says:

    The human checkout lines are much faster unless there’s a lot of people in them. And here there are still people there to bag your groceries for you.

    A lot of the arguments above are quite confusing. Large corporations are jet engines designed to suck your money in and spit out to the large investors that control this country. Supporting increased dividends at the cost of well-paying jobs isn’t in anyone’s interest.

    This would be a lot more interesting conversation to have about the nearly fully automated manufacturing processes and the possibilities these bring to a more equitable society, rather than about a service-sector job where the productivity differences are negligible.

    The service sector robots are still a decade away.

  23. dangermouse says:

    I find the defenses of this “innovation” in the name of progress to be a little weird.

    As far as I can tell the major innovation here is

    1. take a standard grocery store checkout stand

    2. turn it around

    3. make you do it.

    If someone invents some brilliant grocery store of the future where you punch a few buttons on a screen and perfectly bagged groceries pop out of a pneumatic tube then sure sign me up but pardon me for not getting all excited about doing more work for not any less money.

  24. el donaldo says:

    I view self-checkouts as another opportunity to eliminate a pointless interaction with a person who is most likely going to move more slowly and less efficiently than I am. But then I get overconfident and hit them with too many items and realize how efficient an experienced checker can be.

  25. [...] interesting discussion in the comment thread to Erik’s post on the welcome decline of robocheckers below. There’s been some mild pushback against the [...]

  26. brent says:

    I always use the machines if they are available but I have never been under the impression that they save a great deal of time for the checkout process itself. Its just that there is usually no line for them and there is almost always a line in the manned lanes. Aside from all the arguments about labor, which I don’t find very convincing, why on Earth would I wait in line to have someone do something that it takes me like 30 seconds to do for myself.

    I also find them quite easy to use. I use them once or twice a week and I can’t ever really recall having any serious difficulty. I won’t shed any tears if my neighborhood markets end up shitcanning the machines. Honestly, I will probably just shop a little less knowing that I will have to wait in line when I do. But all the complaining about them seems a little over the top.

    • Green Caboose says:

      Agree with this … if there is an open regular lane and an open self-serve I always use the regular because the professional checker is faster than me.

      But, the thing is there is almost NEVER an open regular lane. As such, I intentionally seek out stores that have these self-serve lanes because I’m likely to get through faster. Sometimes, much faster. I frequently travel for business and have patronized local grocery stores all over the place. I’ve found that during commute hours and late at night most stores have an average of 3 or more people in line at every line, with waits of 10 minutes or more just to get the check-out process started.

      Labor-savings? Probably not. But I know our local Safeway put them in as part of a bunch of improvements in response to the founding of a Super Walmart nearby, and together with price improvements and adding some Whole Foods-like features, they’ve actually seen an increase in business after initially losing a ton of business to Walmart. I see these as a competitive convenience.

      And, if you don’t like them, don’t use them. No problem. I notice that their regular checkout lanes are almost always packed.

  27. LKS says:

    ATMs weren’t originally meant to replace tellers – back in the 80s, it cost way more to process an ATM transaction than the equivalent teller transaction by the time you factored in the cost of the equipment, server, network, interchange fees, debit card manufacturing and storage costs, programmers, network techies, armored car services, etc.

    ATMs were regarded primarily as a way of providing customers with banking services when they didn’t have access to a teller, either because the bank was closed or because they were traveling. If you go back and read the marketing literature of the time, you’ll find that just about every bank touted their ATMs as “24-hour banking”. That was the big deal.

    Another big hope for ATMs was that they would replace paper checks. Tellers are cheap. Check processing isn’t, and banks would dearly love to get rid of paper checks entirely. That’s why the earliest ATMs offered limited bill payment functionality as well as deposits and withdrawals. It’s why some banks (BoA, e.g.) now offer free checking with no minimum balance as long as you never write a check. Banks fuggin’ hate checks.

    The ATM was also seen as a way of solving the intractable queuing theory problem of customers with short, simple transactions getting stuck in line when all the teller windows get full of customers with lengthy transactions. That’s why bank lobbies have ATMs. We had three lobby ATMs in our main branch of the bank where I worked.

    In a grocery store, you can put in an express lane to help solve the queuing problem, but for various reasons this never worked well in bank lobbies. The ATM was meant to give customers a speedier option if all they had was a withdrawal or deposit.

    I have no special insider knowledge of the supermarket business or why the self-checkout idea seemed so attractive to some. But I rather doubt it was entirely about eliminating jobs per se. You don’t have to spend much time in a well-run grocery store to realize that the whole checkout thing is enormously inefficient and virtually unmanageable queuing problem. In non-union stores, the cashiers and baggers might be allowed to do some other chores when they’re not needed up front, but that’s assuming there are other chores to do – when it’s slow, it follows that other employees are also looking for something to do. I suspect that self-checkout was seen at least in part as a way of making managing the check-out line more tractable and reducing waiting periods for customers during rushes, and not just as a direct replacement of labor costs.

    I’m not saying the stores weren’t hoping to eliminate some jobs, just that it was probably not the sole reason for installing self-checkouts, and for some chains might not even have been the primary reason.

  28. Marek says:

    I’m with you, EL, for the reasons stated. Never use ‘em. Hate ‘em.

  29. M. Bouffant says:

    Was thinking about this recently. Local supermarket recently remodeled, went from four to six SCOs (& there’s usually a line for them as long as at any of the employee-operated checkstands) but they retained the 12 or 14 employee-operated checkstands, of which two or three are 15 items or less, & the other ten or so are any number. The point being, it will be a very cold day in hell when all 12 or 14 employee-operated ones are staffed & operating. (Has anyone ever been in a market w/ that many that were all open?) Why wouldn’t they have eliminated a few of them? Seems wasteful to have purchased so many POS terminals when no more than six or so will ever be in use at the same time.

    • LKS says:

      Try shopping there the day before Thanksgiving, or Christmas Eve.

      As for your store’s c/o lane implementation strategy… It could be they have some longer-term remodeling plan in mind. It could be they didn’t want to take the older lanes out until they saw how much use the additional SCO lanes were getting. Those are just wild guesses. I have no special insights.

      • M. Bouffant says:

        The store is a Ralphs (subsidiary of Kroger) I’d hope they had some data on what usage would be from their thousands of stores.

        Oddly enough, Food4Less, also a Kroger operation, has been making customers do their own bagging since it appeared, but have no SCOs.

  30. Woodrowfan says:

    they seem to work best if the store puts an employee on duty to help with problems, help bag etc. But if there is no-one assigned solely to help with the sco lines that they bog down.

    • LKS says:

      Sometimes they’re a little too helpful. I like to use SCOs because I like to bag my own stuff. I had a big order one day and the woman who was the hover-bee for the SCOs decided to start bagging for me (no one was using the other SCOs at the moment). She was even worse than the regular baggers.

      Which brings up, I think, one reason why people use SCOs. I don’t want to put some working stiff out of business. But do your damned job better. I started using the SCOs at a Giant in Maryland when I was briefly living there a few years ago because the cashiers were more interested in talking with each other about their kids than getting my order processed, and the baggers were just throwing shit in the bags. And I’m not talking a few bad apples. They were all like that.

      If you don’t care about your job, why should I?

      • Amanda in the South Bay says:

        Meh, I’ve seen plenty of customers do shitty bagging jobs themselves-and I do know a thing or two about this subject. Or, the customers who are overly picky about their bagging, for no damn good reason.

      • Amanda in the South Bay says:

        And, ETA, please don’t be a douche and buy cold items if you have to drive more than 10 minutes to get home, then complain that you’re worried about the cold stuff melting because of a long drive home (doesn’t apply to rural folk, but I sure as hell don’t live in a rural setting).

  31. [...] is why I find this pompous Peter Frase discussion, responding to these posts (and seconding Yglesias), about the relative value of grocery self-checkout lines so [...]

  32. Frank says:

    gosh folks, the research said some customers wanted to check themselves out to get in and out faster, and some of those customers said they would come more often if they could get in and out faster. So no they aren’t all about cutting labor, some folks prefer the opportunity (anti-social types who don’t want to have a cheery conversation with a clerk, you know those ASD folks, many of whom hold good jobs and can afford groceries.)

  33. Malaclypse says:

    While concern troll above is very concerned, I’m hoping Erk writes about this:

    The Village Voice spoke with TWU Local 100’s spokesman Jim Gannon on Wednesday, who explained the group’s reasons for joining the protests:

    “Well, actually, the protesters, it’s pretty courageous what they’re doing,” he said, “and it’s brought a new public focus in a different way to what we’ve been saying along. While Wall Street and the banks and the corporations are the ones that caused the mess that’s flowed down into the states and cities, it seems there’s no shared sacrifice. It’s the workers having to sacrifice while the wealthy get away scot-free. It’s kind of a natural alliance with the young people and the students — they’re voicing our message, why not join them? On many levels, our workers feel an affinity with the kids. They just seem to be hanging out there getting the crap beaten out of them, and maybe union support will help them out a little bit.”

    Does this mean the sixties are finally fucking over?

  34. [...] but they sure think very similarly when it comes to technology. The reaction to the discussion on self-checkout machines at grocery stores that I and djw started reeks of this, to some extent in comments, but more specifically in the longer [...]

  35. Cowman says:

    I’d have to question intelligence if somebody finds them hard to use. The only time they can be a little iffy is if you’re doing vegetables that you need a number for. Anything with a bar code is incredibly fast.

  36. [...] DePillis embraces the job-destroying self-checkout counters at grocery stores. I’ve railed against this before for stealing jobs from workers, often unionized workers affiliated with the UFCW. I usually like DePillis’ writing, but this [...]

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