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On the Vile Technology of Self-Checkout Counters


Time to return to one of my oldest hobby horses: the horror of the self-checkout counter. Between no one knowing how to use them, the fact that companies are asking you to labor for free instead of paying people, and the job destroying side of them, this provides absolutely nothing positive for the world. Kaitlyn Tiffany has a good piece at Vox on these and other problems with them:

I saw a self-checkout in the Urban Outfitters in Herald Square and almost called the ACLU: Some lucky employee sits on a stool near the self-checkout stations and does nothing but remove ink tags from things before you buy them? Sure. What is a person if not just a slightly more dexterous arm than the ones that robots so far have?

Blessedly, I am not alone in fearing self-checkout. John Karolefski, a self-proclaimed undercover grocery shopping analyst who runs the blog Grocery Stories and contributes to the site Progressive Grocer, tells me, “I’m in a lot of supermarkets around the country. I watch people. I can tell you that I’ve been in stores where the lines that have cashiers are very, very long, and people are a little upset, and there are three or four self-checkout units open and nobody is using them.

“Wouldn’t the shopper be better served, customer service improved, if those weren’t there?” he asks. I’m not arguing. “Why do I want to scan my own groceries?” he asks. I have no idea! “Why do I want to bag my own groceries?” he asks. An equally reasonable question with no reasonable answer. The simple solution, he points out, would be to hire enough cashiers to serve the number of customers that typically shop at the store. I agree, and this seems very obvious.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area” is a shared cultural reference like no other. It is recognizable by demographics so broad, the only thing that connects them is that they have at one point attempted to buy something at one of the nation’s largest grocery stores, pharmacies, or fast-food restaurants. It is fuel for memes, and tweets, and Reddit threads. It is the worst phrase known to retail. “Unexpected item in the bagging area” seems to be passive-aggressive code for “are you a shoplifter or just stupid?” and it haunts dreams. One Twitter user suggested that a good idea for a haunted house would just be a series of fake ghosts saying over and over, “Unexpected item in the bagging area.”

Anyone who has used a self-checkout has accidentally put something unexpected in the bagging area and been admonished. They’ve also forgotten to put something in the bagging area and been admonished. They’ve also done seemingly exactly what they were supposed to do and been admonished by some terrible robot nonetheless.

There have been attempts to make this serial berating more pleasant, such as when the UK supermarket chain Morrisons hired Wallace and Gromit actor Ben Whitehead to voice all of its commands, or when another UK supermarket giant, Tesco, decided that its machines should shout, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!” in between each action, or when another British chain, Poundland, replaced all of its voice commands with instructions from an Elvis impersonator.

Stateside, we have made few vocal improvements, but Target did just replace all of its fruit and vegetable menus with emoji, so you can tap on a crying face to indicate that you would like to weigh and pay for an onion.

This constant frustration and humiliation is a contributing factor to the absolute stupidest thing about self-checkout, which is that a full 4 percent of the would-be sales that pass through them are not actually paid for.

Grocery stores have extremely tight profit margins, so that’s a big deal. (Again: We don’t have to do this!) People steal and steal and steal from self-checkout. They type in the price look-up code for bananas (#4011, for your reference) while far more expensive fruits or vegetables or even meat are on the scale. They pull stickers off cheap stuff and put them on expensive stuff. They are ingenious, as humans are when they want to do something that is against the rules. One Australian woman photocopied the barcodes from packets of instant noodles and printed them on sticky labels, which she then brought to the store with her every time she went shopping.

They are modern-day pirates without the violence; Walmart is their East India Trading Company.

As of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 3.5 million Americans were employed as cashiers. The bureau’s 10-year forecast shows only a 1 percent reduction of these positions (just under 31,000 jobs), but this decrease has to be understood in the context of another trend: the rise of retail. The National Retail Federation says the sector grew nearly 4 percent last year and predicts it will do so again this year.

Beck tells Vox, “There are a number of reasons why retailers have invested in self-scan technologies. The first and most important is that it enables them to reduce their costs considerably. The largest proportion of a retailer’s cost is their wage bill.”

In one store, he added, he saw one supervisor tasked with overseeing 23 self-checkouts at once.

Why would you participate in this???

And look, I really don’t care about your social anxiety, which is always brought up when I mention this. I mean, I am empathetic. But your social anxiety is not something we can base employment policy upon. That has to be based on what is best for society. Self-checkouts are horrible for society. They are anti-social, they throw people out of work, they make you labor for free. They are significant net negative. And if you hate dealing with people that much, there are delivery services now that limit your social interactions.

If you care about workers at all, do not use self-checkout counters. They are toxic and awful. Ban them.

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