Self Service Checkouts

There’s a new presence gaining increasing space in shops, something creeping surreptitiously into our retail lives almost without being noticed. I’m talking about automatic checkouts or as they are optimistically known Self Service Checkouts. Of course they are not actually self-service because you are at the mercy of a voice that will stand for no nonsense.  We’ve come a long way in customer services from the disinterested girl chewing and swiping your goods nonchalantly but now people are in danger of being completely replaced by machines. And not just any machine either. Progress is great if it actually moves things forward but the new breed of self service in large shops opens up a new front in the ongoing issue of how technology is destroying viable jobs. Plus it is prone to quirky behaviour.

To take the example of Tesco, the country’s largest supermarket - if you want to buy anything there before about 9am then you are obliged to use an auto till because there is nothing else available. They have attempted to humanise this ugly machine by giving it a soft female voice, which unfortunately has a discernible tone of rebuke should you miss any step of the awkward process. So you swipe your goods like a seasoned checkout person and then you are supposed to place them on a shelf to one side.
Why you have to do this –or indeed the fact that you have to- is not explained by the voice. Instead it says there has been something unexpected though if we’re honest it’s not the unexpected is it? There is a small message on the screen telling you what to do but the voice does not mention that at all. So you stand there wandering why the thing isn’t working. Turns out you have to place your purchase on this shelf even if it’s the only thing you’ve bought and you’d rather put it in your bag thank you very much.
The point is that the layout of this machine is difficult to relate to the much simpler process that manned checkouts have whereby they swipe and after that you can do what you like with what you’ve bought; there’s no official shelf onto which it first has to be sat before you can put it away.
The automatic checkouts do not really save any time either. It used to be the case that you queued for less time using them but awareness has meant that this is no longer the case unless you’re just buying one or two items. It takes longer because you have to swipe and pack instead of just packing while the assistant carries on swiping.
Plus the machine will not pass the time of day, ask you if you need any help packing, comment on the price of fish or the amount of rain we’ve had lately. It will not tell you how proud it is of relatives who are currently appearing at the local theatre. If offers no interaction only instructions and if you don’t place things on that shelf the embarrassment of having to ask the nearby assistant what to do.
The more we use these auto tills, the more of them there will be and it’s another disappointing step towards the prospect of a contact free shopping experience. 
Needless to say this made me smile...



  1. As well as providing a dehumanising customer experience they also sustain the centralisation of the supermarket chains. Manned checkouts are staffed by low-income semi-skilled workers who live locally, so at least some of the money spent at the supermarkets is returned to the communities where they've set up shop. With self-service checkouts, the more of the revenue is taken away, to contribute to centralised profit which benefits management, shareholders and the business machine companies who provide and maintain the checkouts and supporting infrastructure.
    These self-service checkouts symbolise perfectly the corrosive effect that unregulated supermarkets are having on communities. It's bad enough that small local businesses are supplanted by centrally-run supermarket outlets, but when they effectively get local people to act as unpaid checkout staff for them, it means they don't even have to create compensatory jobs to replace those lost in the local shops.
    Refuse to use self-service tills. Insist that a manned till is opened up. Give supermarkets the message that the choice is ours and that we will go elsewhere unless we can exercise it.

  2. Regardless of our opinions,the automated experience is the way forward.