An Unexpected Element: How Self-Loans Failed to Live Up to Their Promise

wWhen the first self-checkout kiosks were introduced to American stores more than three decades ago, they were presented as a technology that could help stores cut costs, save customers time and even prevent theft.

Companies are still concerned about these issues, and in the face of a tight labor market, more companies are making self-checkouts the norm. Wal-Mart revealed this week that thefts from its stores have reached a historic high, which many employees and customers associate with the self-departure. But not only did the machines fail to deliver on their promises; They made things more difficult for almost everyone, including the workers they were supposed to replace.

Among them is 25-year-old James, a cashier at a large department store in Washington state, where he has worked for four years. He says managing a self-check has become one of the most stressful parts of his job, which pays little more than minimum wage.

Customers often take out their frustrations on him. “That should be your damn job, not mine,” he recalls of a man he recently bumped into. “I said, sir, nobody forces you out of the house. If you want a cashier, you can score three.”

James is required to monitor a steady stream of up to four customers at once – “like a bloodied shark” – as they struggle with a scanner and touchscreen, and occasionally attempt to rob. “You’re confined to that little space, and you’re pretty much standing in one place for up to eight hours a day, which kills your feet. And having to deal with so many people drains your mental battery.”

In 2018, only 18% of all grocery store transactions went through self-checkout, rising to 30% last year. Walmart, Kroger, Dollar General and Albertson’s are now among the retail chains testing full self-checkout stores.

It’s not something we should get excited about, says Christopher Andrews, a sociologist who examined kiosks in his 2018 book, The Stressed Consumer: Self-Checkout, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. Despite what grocery stores and kiosk manufacturers claim, research shows that self-checkouts are actually no faster than a typical checkout line, Andrews says. “It only seems so because your time is spent doing tasks, rather than paying attention to every second ticking away.”

Nor have they reduced the need for workers: Despite the increase in self-loans, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the number of cashiers employed in the United States has remained roughly the same over the past 10 years. Andrews says any reduction in lower-paid workers has been offset by the need to pay technicians to maintain the kiosks — and the kiosks can cost up to $150,000 per row.

So if self-checkouts are so ineffective, why do we have them at all?

Modern supermarkets’ self-service policies, Andrews says, are “largely imposed by companies, not by customers asking for them.” Prior to the 20th century, shoppers usually bought merchandise directly from the staff behind the counters. That changed in 1916, when Clarence Saunders opened the first modern supermarket: Piggly Wiggly in Texas where customers were required to remove items from the shelves themselves – and received a discount for doing so.

In 1986, a few Kroger stores installed the first self-checkout machines, which cost $5 million to develop. The contraption, called CheckRobots, asks customers to scan items and place them on a conveyor belt before a human employee bags them on the other end. Donald Dufek, vice president of Kroger, admitted that the system was actually slower than traditional checkouts. But he told reporters at the time: “If the customer feels and thinks that this payment method is faster, he is satisfied to get out of the store faster.”

“Companies think: ‘If we can get more people to do this, maybe we can start to reduce some of our overheads.'” “ Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Andrews says his research has found that the majority of people don’t actually want to self-log out. The real reason stores use them, he says, is because their competitors do. “It doesn’t work well for anyone, but everyone feels they have to have it. If we can get more people to do it, maybe we can start to reduce some of the overhead,” the companies think.

Meanwhile, self-checkouts have become a prime target for scammers, who use a variety of tactics to get around anti-theft measures. Weight sensors can be defeated by ringing expensive items – like king crab legs – as cheap items like apples. James, the Washington cashier, says he saw a customer try to buy a $1,600 grill for $5 by hiding an item inside another and swapping the barcodes.

This has led to an arms race of sorts as some retailers have responded with increasingly aggressive action. Wal-Mart is known for aggressively prosecuting shoplifters and has installed AI-powered cameras near self-checkout areas with Missed Check Detection. “It turns what should be a fun shopping activity into an airport-style TSA-like security check,” Andrews says.

Such actions have aroused the contempt of Labor advocates. “A well-run store with well-trained staff who check on customers is the easy and smart solution,” says Marc Peroni, president of the United Food and Business Workers International Confederation, which represents more than a million retail workers.

Instead, Beroni says, retailers like Wal-Mart have increasingly sought to use self-discharges to cut jobs and increase profits.

Walmart spokesman Charles Krewson declined to comment on the company’s self-checkout operations, but said the retailer is “continually exploring effective ways to protect merchandise, keep prices low, and provide a safe environment for the millions of customers we serve weekly.”

Kiosks pose problems beyond theft. Self-checkouts are often inaccessible to people with limited vision or wheelchair users, who complain that they are forced to flag down to the cashier every time they use the computerized kiosks. The National Federation of the Blind sued Walmart in 2018 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by “excluding blind people from using the service in the way it was intended—independently and confidentially,” though a federal judge ruled in favor of Walmart last year.

Log-out screens can also pose a threat to your health, according to a recent study by the UK-based Infection Innovation Consortium that sampled a selection of everyday objects. “The self-examination samples had one of the highest bacterial loads, as we found five different types of pathogenic bacteria that can live on,” lead researcher Dr. Adam Roberts said in a statement. “This Enterococcuswhich are found in human feces, and although this is usually harmless, it can of course lead to disease, particularly in those who may have weakened immune systems.”

Could we see a world without self-signing out? Yes, if clients refuse. “Companies are looking for creative ways to reduce labor costs, and if they can figure out how to get customers to do more work, they will,” Andrews says. “I tell people to vote by carrying your pocket. I went to my local supermarket last night after work and filled my cart. The staff said go self checkout — and I just walked away. Because my thought was, ‘I’m not going to sit here and scan 60 items. It just doesn’t Worth my time.”

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