Self-checkout

Kgbo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

I do not understand the hostility I see on Facebook from time to time towards self-checkout.

I don’t know of any major retailers that have eliminated checkout lanes. In Shelbyville, Kroger and Walmart both offer you a choice. You can use self-checkout, or you can go through a traditional checkout lane. I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. The major big-box chains are in a fierce competition, and they are trying to add more options, not fewer. They’ve added self-checkout, but they’ve also added ClickList, in which an employee does your shopping for you and brings your groceries out to your car, and home delivery options as well.

It’s completely up to you. I find self-checkout, for the way I shop, to be much faster and more convenient. But I don’t begrudge anyone the right to go through a traditional checkout lane, and I use them myself in certain situations (a large, full basket, for example, or when buying a gift card which must be activated at the register). I feel no hostility towards traditional checkout lanes or the people using them — it’s a matter of personal preference, not a moral issue.

“But wait,” some of you are saying. “It is a moral issue. Self-checkout lanes cost people jobs.”

I would respond to that in several ways.

First off, I don’t think they cost as many jobs as they’re blamed for. At our local Walmart, before the arrival of self-checkout, there were never enough checkout lanes open and there were always long lines. Walmart, in other words, made a decision to limit the number of checkout lines long before self-checkout became a thing. The arrival of self-checkout lanes seems to have helped — meaning everyone, whether they go through self-checkout or whether they go through a traditional checkout lane, has a better, faster experience. And at the same time stores have been adding self-checkout lines, some of them have been adding employee-intensive services like ClickList.

McDonald’s, meanwhile, is building new restaurants where you are encouraged to order your food by touch-screen. But at those same restaurants, for dine-in orders, the food is brought to your table, which I like much better than waiting for my number to be called. And there’s still a human being with a cash register, over in the corner, if you don’t want to use the touch screens.

Also, by the line of reasoning that equates boycotting self-checkout with saving jobs, no one should have ever purchased a Model T because of all the blacksmiths who were put out of work. No one should ever use an ATM because of its potential impact on bank tellers. No one should book airline tickets or hotel rooms online because it costs travel agents money.

For that matter, no one should ever have shopped at the first Piggly Wiggly, which is credited with introducing the modern supermarket. In the old days, you would go tell a shopkeeper what you wanted and the shopkeeper would get it for you. At the first Piggly Wiggly, in Memphis, customers were given shopping baskets and allowed to — horrors! — pick their own merchandise from the shelves. You can imagine the old fogeys of 1916 making all of the same arguments now being directed at the self-checkout lane. “Why should I pick my own groceries? That’s the shopkeeper’s job.”

Technology happens. We need to be aware of it, and cautious about the way that it changes us as a people, but I don’t think that what’s happening here is thoughtful, cautious criticism.

I do not think that self-checkout stations are in danger of displacing traditional checkout lines any time soon. I think smart businesses will want to have both, plus curbside pickup, plus home delivery. Yes, Amazon has been testing a creepy store design where the store shelves know what items you pick up, keep a running tab, and then charge you automatically as you walk out the door with your purchases. But that’s like a concept car at an auto show or some bizarre, unwearable design being paraded down the runways at Fashion Week. It’s not something you’ll have access to in the forseeable future.

If you prefer traditional checkout, that’s great! Keep using it. I’ll be right behind you, every now and then. But don’t get up on a soapbox and try to make someone else feel guilty for taking advantage of a convenient alternative.