‘It hasn’t delivered’: The spectacular failure of self-checkout technology

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(Image credit: Alamy)

Shopper in self-checkout area

By Sam Becker15th January 2024

Unstaffed tills were supposed to revolutionise shopping. Now, both retailers and customers are bagging many self-checkout kiosks.


It’s a common sight at many retail stores: a queue of people, waiting to use a self-checkout kiosk, doing their best to remain patient as a lone store worker attends to multiple malfunctioning machines. The frustration mounts while a dozen darkened, roped-off and cashier-less tills sit in the background.

For shoppers, self-checkout was supposed to provide convenience and speed. Retailers hoped it would usher in a new age of cost savings. Their thinking: why pay six employees when you could pay one to oversee customers at self-service registers, as they do their own labour of scanning and bagging for free?

While self-checkout technology has its theoretical selling points for both consumers and businesses, it mostly isn’t living up to expectations. Customers are still queueing. They need store employees to help clear kiosk errors or check their identifications for age-restricted items. Stores still need to have workers on-hand to help them, and to service the machines.

The technology is, in some cases, more trouble than it’s worth.

“It hasn’t delivered anything that it promises,” says Christopher Andrews, associate professor and chair of sociology at Drew University, US, and author of The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy. “Stores saw this as the next frontier… If they could get the consumer to think that [self-checkout] was a preferable way to shop, then they could cut labour costs. But they’re finding that people need help doing it, or that they’ll steal stuff. They ended up realising that they’re not saving money, they’re losing money.”One of the frustrations of self-checkout can be the extra work of having to find a specific PLU code to ring up a purchase (Credit: Alamy)

One of the frustrations of self-checkout can be the extra work of having to find a specific PLU code to ring up a purchase (Credit: Alamy)

Unexpected problems in the bagging area

Many retail companies have invested millions – if not billions – of dollars in self-checkout technology, which Andrews says was first developed during the 1980s, and started appearing in stores in the 1990s. They’re not exactly cheap to get into stores: some experts estimate a four-kiosk system can run six figures.

Despite the cost to install them, many retailers are reversing course on the tech. Target, for instance, is restricting the number of items self-checkout customers can purchase at one time. Walmart has removed some self-checkout kiosks in certain stores to deter theft. In the UK, supermarket chain Booths has also cut down on the number of self-service kiosks in its stores, as customers say they’re slow and unreliable.

Dollar General, one of the fastest-growing retailers in the US, is also re-thinking its strategy. In 2022, the discount chain leaned heavily into self-checkout technology – it’s not uncommon to see only one or two employees staffing an entire Dollar General store in some areas. Despite the investment, they are now planning to increase the number of employees in stores “and in particular, the checkout area”, according to the company’s CEO, Todd Vasos. 

“We had relied and started to rely too much this year on self-checkout in our stores,” he said during the company’s Q3 2023 earnings call on 7 December 2023. “We should be using self-checkout as a secondary checkout vehicle, not a primary.” (Dollar General did not respond to the BBC’s requests for comment).

Some data shows retailers utilising self-checkout technology have loss rates more than twice the industry average

Some retailers cite theft as a motivator for ditching the unstaffed tills. Customers may be more willing to simply swipe merchandise when using a self-service kiosk than they are when face-to-face with a human cashier. Some data shows retailers utilising self-checkout technology have loss rates more than twice the industry average.

In addition to shrink concerns, experts say another failure of self-checkout technology is that, in many cases, it simply doesn’t lead to the cost savings businesses hoped for. Just as Dollar General appears poised to add more employees to its check-out areas, presumably increasing staffing costs, other companies have done the same. Despite self-checkout kiosks becoming ubiquitous throughout the past decade or so, the US still has more than 3.3 million cashiers working around the nation, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Humans or machines?

Consumers want this technology to work, and welcomed it with open arms. However, years later, they’re still queueing for tills; waiting for store-staff assistance with errors or age checks; and searching high and low for the PLU code of the Walla Walla Sweet Onions they’re trying to purchase. 

In a 2021 survey of 1,000 American shoppers, 60% of consumers said they prefer to use self-checkout over a staffed checkout aisle when given the choice, yet 67% of consumers have had the technology fail while trying to use it.Experts say some self-checkout kiosks may stand abandoned as some shoppers transition backed to staffed tills (Credit: Alamy)

Experts say some self-checkout kiosks may stand abandoned as some shoppers transition backed to staffed tills (Credit: Alamy)

The bottom line is businesses want to cut costs, and shoppers want to get in and out of a store. If self-checkout isn’t the answer, they’ll find another avenue.

“It’s not that self-checkout technology is good or bad, per se… [but] if we try self-checkout and realise we’re not benefitting from it, we might switch back to not using it,” says Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas, who studies consumer behaviour and decision-making.

That appears to be happening in many cases, as customers’ frustrations with the technology persist. But Andrews says that while stores may change up their strategies – as seen with Dollar General and others – many large retail chains are likely to keep kiosks in stores due to sunk costs. “They spent billions putting it in stores, and are hoping they can still get the public to buy into it,” he says.

Retailers may continue to rely on the technology, but many aren’t putting all their farm-fresh eggs in the self-checkout basket. Instead, they’re increasingly giving customers the option to choose between human and machine.

For the customers that do choose to do the labour themselves, there’s one thing Andrews believes won’t change. However ubiquitous the technology is, and however much consumers get used to using the kiosks, shoppers are likely to find themselves disappointed and frustrated most of the time.

“It was part of a larger experiment in retail in trying to socialise https://mendapatkankol.com/ people into using it,” he says. Simply, “customers hate it”.

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