Stores are pretty packed right now. In the last few days before the holidays, you can’t go anywhere without bumping into people you know, bumping into people you don’t know, finding the things you need gone from the shelves, and perhaps most symbolically, waiting in lines.
But wait. You don’t have to do that anymore, I’ve been told. You can use a self-checkout and get out of the store and quicker and be on your merry way. No thanks.
I don’t remember when these things came around. I didn’t really take notice of them until about two years ago and I didn’t use one at all until last year. Many of my friends were crazy about them. They enjoyed scanning and bagging their items themselves. They enjoyed not waiting in long lines behind someone with a cart of food for the entire next week when all you have is a movie from the $5 bin you couldn’t pass by.
Personally, I can’t stand the things. Part of that may be because I am somewhat technologically challenged in some regards. The first time I used a self-checkout, I was buying one item and had no idea what I was doing. There was no employee standing nearby at all and I actually ended up calling someone on my phone to figure out to stop the contraption from beeping at me. A few times after that, I went to stores with friends and had them help me each time something “isn’t in bagging area.”
But that’s not the main reason I don’t like them. I’m sure many people have noticed going into big chain stores just how many checkout lines some have. Some are numbered 1-12 or even 16 I’ve seen. But I never understood one thing. Maybe two or three of them ever had a cashier actually at them. Now that self-checkout lines are popping up in more places, there are even less cashiers.
Self-checkout lines are killing jobs. It isn’t that hard to see.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, 6 percent of U.S. supermarkets offered self-checkout lanes in 1999, and by 2007, 95 percent had them. British retail giant Tesco has all self-checkout stations at the chain’s 156 U.S. outlets. And why not? You don’t have to pay machines.
But just because they’re there doesn’t mean they’re instant job killers. It also depends on how many people actually use them. Last year, self-checkout machines accounted for between 12 and 30 percent of sales, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While that may may seem low, it will most likely grow in the future. Automation is tipping the scale on economics. This isn’t the first time this has happened. 2001: A Space Odyssey made it sound like technology replacing human efforts was a long way off. But technology has already made jobs like telephone switchboard operators, typewriter manufacturers and even bowling pin setters obsolete.
What’s the difference between those and self-checkouts? Necessity—the mother of invention herself. Self-checkout lines don’t make you safer. They don’t make you healthier. They don’t even set your bowling pins for you. If the argument is that they’re quicker—mainly for people with few items—that argument won’t stand very long.
The more people use them, the more items people will purchase using them. The more items purchased at them means longer lines at them. After a while, they won’t be any faster than if human hands took care of it as they have all this time. But the jobs would still be gone.
That equation may already be gaining ground in many places. As fast as some stores are installing these machines, many are taking them out, citing customer dissatisfaction.
I find no problem putting my items on a counter, giving my cash to a human being, and maybe listening to how that human being just moved into their new apartment. I’ll take it over automation any day.
Luke Parsnow is a copy editor and page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88