We’re in a Self-Checkout Stalemate

Despite complaints from customers and stores, self-checkout is here to stay.

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Self-checkout at grocery stores is becoming polarizing. Some customers love it for the sense of control and absence of small talk with the person bagging your groceries. Others hate being tasked with the labor of checking out their own haul, not to mention the frustrating tech errors, like an “unexpected item in the bagging area” that is not there. The stores themselves now seem just as torn, turning their backs on self-checkout apps and other technologies originally touted as the future of grocery shopping. It seems we’ve found ourselves in a conundrum where we just can’t live with or without self-checkout.

Why Wegmans and Amazon Fresh are stopping self-checkout

Both supermarket chain Wegmans and Amazon Fresh stores had previously implemented some form of a “just walk out” self-checkout system. In the case of Wegmans, you skipped the checkout line by using an app to scan your groceries as you go. Amazon Fresh implemented decidedly creepier technology that tracks which items you pick up and put down, charging you for whatever is in your cart when you leave. However, both stores are now suspending the use of these technologies.

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According to The New York Times, Wegmans attributed the decision simply to “the losses” being experienced. Similarly, Insider reports that Amazon Fresh experienced “disappointing sales” with this just-walk-out model, especially considering how much more it costs to build markets with this technology compared to a typical grocery store.

But there’s also speculation that these methods make it easier to shoplift, which contributes to losses across the board. Neil Saunders, managing director and retail analyst at GlobalData Retail, tells The New York Times that this theory could be especially true at this moment because in-store theft typically rises when the cost of living goes up. But neither Wegmans nor Amazon Fresh has explicitly commented that this is the reason behind the decision, and without that confirmation or any concrete numbers it feels like yet another instance of punishing shoppers for crimes they haven’t committed.

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Why self-checkout grocery shopping is here to stay

Despite the fact that self-checkout systems can cause issues on both the retailer and shopper end of the transaction, it’s likely that the method is not only here to stay, but will become even more ubiquitous. According to the Wall Street Journal, self-checkout represented 30% of all grocery transactions in 2021 (up from 18% in 2018), and self-checkout machines are now at 96% of the 38,000 retail stores surveyed by The Food Industry Association.

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The labor shortage is a driving force behind the expansion of these machines. A traditional grocery shopping setup requires one cashier (and possibly a bagger) per every checkout lane, while only one employee is needed to oversee as many as 10 self-checkout kiosks. Even as stores like Wegmans and Amazon Fresh rethink their more advanced technologies, the fallback doesn’t involve adding more cashiers to check people out, but rather adding more supervised self-checkout lanes.

Even with all the possible errors a customer might encounter at a self-checkout kiosk, with fewer cashiers to staff traditional checkout lanes it often becomes the most efficient method. Instead of waiting in a snaking line that bottlenecks at one person scanning everyone’s groceries, you can stand in an always-moving line that cycles through multiple checkout points.

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If major supermarket chains feel like their high-tech self-checkout solutions haven’t been worth the financial investment, the focus should be on creating a more desirable working environment for their employees and using those incentives to lure more workers in turn. Otherwise, more time and money should be invested in the existing self-checkout technology to avoid the errors that irk customers most. As for customers, it’s time to perfect your bagging technique—if your bread gets smooshed, you have no one to blame but yourself.