I was recently asked by a Chicago-area jazz station, WDCB, for an off-the-cuff opinion on the decision made by some food retailers — notably Albertsons LLC and Big Y — to remove their self-checkout lanes. My gut response was to say, essentially, that I thought it was a bad idea.
Why not give shoppers a choice of checkout options? After all, consumers’ views on self-checkout vary widely. Those that dislike self-checkout because it’s too cumbersome or unreliable can go to a full-service lane; those (like me) who do like it, especially for a handful of items, because it circumvents waiting on line, can select one of the self-service lanes. At the very least, a retailer should look at the self-checkout question on a store-by-store basis, considering local demographics and tendencies.
But the self-checkout issue deserves more analysis than a radio sound bite. For one thing, it reflects a deeper societal struggle over whether automation should continue to displace human beings in low- or medium-skill jobs, especially at a time of high unemployment, furthering the depersonalization of the marketplace. If you value the personal touch, though, the question remains whether supermarket cashiers are given sufficient training and compensation to effectively serve in a customer-service role at the checkout lane. I would say most are not.
I discovered another aspect of self-checkout in a recent New York Times opinion piece by Craig Lambert, deputy editor of Harvard Magazine. He pointed out an often overlooked phenomenon called “shadow work,” the free labor consumers are increasingly asked to provide by organizations such as supermarkets, airports and banks.
This shadow work can come with its own costs in the form of added stress and fatigue. In the case of self-checkout, consumers often ask whether their scan-and-bag efforts on behalf of a store are worth it in terms of convenience and time saved. Retailers could certainly sweeten the deal with a discount for self-checkout users.
Still, as Apple has shown, if technology is powerful enough, consumers will embrace it. The same should be true for self-checkout. Self-checkout systems will continue to improve, but the game-changer will be mobile phone self-checkout apps. Stop & Shop has already begun testing a smartphone self-checkout app based on its Scan It! device that works in sync with stationary self-checkout lanes.
When mobile scan-and-pay becomes perfected, it’s doubtful that many retailers will reject that self-checkout option.