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  • Writer's pictureMolly Gallant

Is self-checkout on its way out?


At the end of every trip to the store, we are faced with two checkout options. The first is to step right up to a self-checkout machine, for which there is rarely a line, or else to wait an additional few minutes to interact with a cashier and pay for our purchases in person.

For myself, the choice is always clear. I much prefer checking out with a cashier. This is largely because I find self-checkout doesn’t actually save me much time. Between searching for product codes, weighing produce and being told repeatedly to put my item in the bag (I promise, it is already there), I dislike using self-checkouts machine. Never mind the embarrassment of entering the wrong code and having to wait for an attendant to come and enter the correct code to fix my silly mistake.

I think of this often as I am frequently presented with the option of using self-checkout machines and I was curious whether there were others who felt the same.

Are we using self-checkout?

It certainly seems as though I am not alone in my dislike for self-checkout. A grocery shopping study conducted by the University of Dalhousie back in 2018 found that of just over 1000 respondents, only 11 per cent said they regularly used automated machines. Despite their many advances, self-checkout machines remain a source of frustration for many shoppers. Respondents echoed many of my own reasons for avoiding the machines including the inability to effectively save time and reduce hassle.

Some stores are responding to this frustration by actually removing some of their self-checkout machines. Customer concerns extend beyond frustration with the technology, many are more worried about cashiers losing their jobs. Other simply prefer interacting with a cashier while shopping.

A Dutch supermarket recently made headlines with the launch of a new initiative that very much supports those who prefer human interaction while shopping. Affectionately called the "chat checkout", they've introduced a unique checkout experience designed to fight loneliness, particularly among the elderly. Those who are not in a rush, but in the mood for a chat, are welcome to use this lane.

PPC community markets, a grocery chain located in the United States, ran a test in one of their stores where it compared the number of people who used self-checkout versus going to a cashier. The results? Two-thirds of customers chose the cashier lines over self-checkout preferring interacting with someone while in the store. For a chain focused on community, self-checkout machines simply did not fit.

Finally, there is a CBC article that outlines the experience of several customers who were forced to use self-checkout. In these situations, and for various reasons, there was not even an option to check out with a cashier. In all cases, customers voiced frustration and annoyance at this lack of customer service. For those who struggle with technology or are perhaps hard of hearing, the self-checkout experience can be stressful and time-consuming. Some customers actually reported leaving their purchases behind and simply exiting the store when told their only option was self-checkout.

However, there are some customers who do prefer the self-checkout model. This technology tends to be more favourable among young shoppers who enjoy the ease of the technology or else those who prefer to not have to interact with someone.

Is the solution MORE technology?

Along those lines, there are many who believe that technological advancements in grocery stores are inevitable. Caper and Sobey’s, collaborators on a recent “smart” grocery cart launch, would tend to agree.

The shopping cart’s high tech makeover was recently unveiled at a Sobey’s located in Oakville, ON. With a promise to make shopping “frictionless and seamless” the self-checkout technology has been elevated several leaps and bounds forward – at least for those among us who are tech-savvy. The “smart” shopping cart is able to scan, weigh and accept payment while the customer shops around the store.

This is a pilot program only available in Oakville where 10 carts will be rolled out for testing. Sobeys has not revealed any further plans to expand the program.

Will the future of shopping be checkout-free?

Although few of us may have seen it in person, many of us remember Amazon’s launch of their first high-tech grocery store back in 2018. The first checkout-free grocery store of its kind, these shops rely on cameras and sensors to track which items customers remove from the shelf. Customers must download the Amazon Go app on their phones before shopping. When shopping is completed, customers can simply leave the store and will be billed via credit cards they have on file.

This is certainly one way to get around long lines at the cash that may deter shoppers. What’s more, there is no decision to be made between self-checkout or cashier, the only available option is “no checkout”.

For now, Amazon Go stores are only available in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Although Amazon has plans to expand their offerings, I can’t imagine the majority of our shopping shifting to this model any time soon.

For myself, until the option disappears entirely, I will continue opting for the cashier lane when checking out.


Recommended citation format: Gallant, M. "Is self-checkout on its way out?”. Food Focus Guelph (65), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, October 24th, 2019.


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