Are self-checkouts a good thing or a bad thing?

Checking out directly on your cart definitely has its advantages.

There was an item on the news this week that demonstrated the future of in-store grocery shopping. Sobey’s is test-driving new shopping carts that allow you to scan your items as soon as you pull them off the shelf. Each cart is equipped with a product scanner and sensors so you can scan your purchases immediately and drop them into your (recyclable) shopping bags sitting open in the cart. Easy peasy. No checkout clerk required. And special sensors in the cart alert you if you “forget” to scan something, preventing unscrupulous shoppers from circumventing the honour system.

Although I like the idea of getting in and out of the grocery store in as little time as possible, I have mixed feelings about this new innovation. It would be wonderful to avoid checkout lineups and the process of unloading your purchases from your cart onto a conveyor belt, then having to reload them again into your bags to go to the car. It would also prevent being subjected to clerks trying to sell me the deodorant special of the week, and the lure of gossipy magazines I tend to pick up while killing time in the lineup.

My biggest concern with self-checkouts, however, is the loss of service jobs that provide essential employment for so many semi-skilled and unskilled workers. It’s no small matter. Those service jobs are disappearing everywhere at a time when we need them. McDonald’s is using computerized graphic boards so customers can customize and place their own orders, once again by-passing the human clerk. To their credit, they have compensated for the employment issue by using staff/team members to deliver trays of food to the table in many outlets,a nice little bonus. Shoppers Drug Mart is now introducing self-checkout as well and I always opt for using a real live person to make my purchases—again because of the jobs issue. Self-serve bank machines and gas pumps were early examples of machines replacing people. Somehow we were easily tricked into doing the service providers’ work ourselves with no apparent benefit. We now have to wash our own windshields and even pay service fees to the banks for using our own money.

The voice of customer service is not the same as the face of customer service.

With so many commercial transactions now being conducted online, businesses are increasingly using their customers to do the work of what we used to call ‘Customer Service’. Even customer service has now come to mean an anonymous voice in a remote call-centre, an impersonal job staffed by people in third-world countries who speak English as a second language. Despite their scripted words, “I understand”, they rarely do.

Sobey’s executives have tried to assure customers that jobs will not be lost and they insist the people who were formerly checkout clerks will be working elsewhere in the store. I’m skeptical about this even though I would love to have personnel on the floor who could quickly and correctly direct me to where the maraschino cherries are located.

When boomers were growing up in the fifties and sixties, large supermarkets were just starting to take off. Many of our mothers still did their grocery shopping in small local stores—meat from a butcher shop, produce from the greengrocer or perhaps all the weekly groceries at a small local general store. Bread and milk were delivered to our door by nice uniformed men in trucks. If you’re a particularly mature boomer like me, you may even remember the iceman bringing blocks of ice a couple of times a week. He’d usually break off some small chunks onto the sidewalk for us kids to chew on and cool off on a hot day. And we didn’t die or even get sick from eating ice off the sidewalk. We loved it.

My father grew up in a rural community, even smaller than the one I grew up in. The local village was basically a few buildings at the intersection of two roads. A weekly trip to the general store was a big deal. Dad told me that his father would dress up in his suit and tie for the weekly trip “into town” and sit on the front porch of the store catching up on the news with the other local men while their wives did the weekly shopping. And there’s a lot to be said for having a store clerk who knows your Aunt Mildred had her gall bladder out and asks how she’s doing. Catching up on who just had a baby or whose combine broke down was an early version of Facebook but conducted in person.

Seriously? What is happening to living in and enjoying the moment of one-on-one conversation with in-the-flesh friends.

Human beings need personal, real-life interaction with other human beings. It’s a fundamental part of our makeup and conducive to good health. We hear a lot about the plague of loneliness among the elderly but I suspect it’s not just older people who feel starved of human connection. It’s tragic to see a table full of young people in a restaurant or coffee shop each focussed on their smartphones, communicating with others at a distance who are obviously more important in their lives than whoever they’re sitting with. We risk losing the art of meaningful conversation. It won’t be long before even wait staff in restaurants will be replaced by smart devices on each table that allow us to place our order. Then, we’ll even be deprived of the opportunity to say “Yes. Everything’s fine, thank you” to a real human being.

I’m torn on the self-checkout issue. Are they a good thing or a bad thing? On one hand, I like the idea of avoiding the lineup at the cashier’s counter. But that cashier probably needs the job and I enjoy exchanging a few words with him or her. I usually try to make their day a little less boring by telling them I like their hair or asking them if they have special plans for the weekend. We all need that human connection. As to whether self-checkouts are a good thing or a bad thing, one thing we know for sure, self-checkouts are an inevitable thing, whether we like it or not. I plan to avoid them as much as possible. What about you?

Footnote: Two weeks later I went into my Shoppers’ Drug Mart and the self-checkout machines had disappeared, replaced by a conventional checkout with a real-life human being. Victory for our side and one small step for humankind.


  1. Deb Rennie 9 November 2019 at 12:05 pm

    My very first job was as a cashier at Dominion part time while in high school. In those good old days we not only had to manually enter the price on the cash register, but also bag the groceries. We learned to make change and there was no such thing as debit or credit card. Nothing made me happier than having a perfectly “balanced” till at the end of my shift. I also hate to admit but I actually enjoyed the bagging, proving a future enjoyment in organizing everything in my house.
    I also credit this part time job as my stepping stone to my future career with RBC. The math part was one part but the customer interaction was the key!

  2. MA 28 October 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Great summary of the self-checkout carts. I guess like online banking we will adjust to all this as well. Sadly. And then there will be something else that will modernize our society and we will become further removed from personal contact. …..’and the beat goes on..’.

  3. Margy 28 October 2019 at 7:31 pm

    I’ve read where some stores have closed their self-check out machines because people simply didn’t wouldn’t use them. Others have opted for a single line-up that feeds into multiple staffed tills. This has speeded up the check-out time.
    Two things that I don’t like about self-check out is it doesn’t reduce the price of items AND there is no consistency in how they operate. Sometimes I spend so long trying to figure out how they work that I want to turn to the person in line behind me and say “Do you know how to work this thing? If you do, come and do it for me. It would be faster for us both…”
    Actually, I’ve seen this happen in a few parking garages…
    Like you, I enjoy shopping where there is staff at the tills. We shop at a particular grocery store in AZ because we like the staff. They use special needs people to bag and though they are not always the best or fastest baggers in the world, they are so enthusiastic and cheerful.

    1. MA 28 October 2019 at 7:35 pm

      Wouldn’t that be delightful to have a bagger who was enthusiastic and cheerful. Normally they’re talking to the cashier and they totally ignore you.

      1. Lynda Davis 30 October 2019 at 10:40 am

        I’d even settle for a silent or grumpy bagger – just have the luxury of a bagger. Makes things go so much faster and they usually love to chat.

    2. Lynda Davis 30 October 2019 at 10:39 am

      No one was available at the drugstore the other day so I was forced to try the self-checkout and it took me so long to sort it out I almost abandoned my couple of purchases and walked out. We’re Canadian and baggers here have been ancient history for years but we visit Florida and the Publix grocery stores there also use seniors, students and special needs people. I love that and they always enjoy a little chat. Thanks for your feedback Margy.

  4. Perry McEwen 28 October 2019 at 12:39 pm

    I hate them. In fact I’m trying to avoid those stores who are pushing us into using them. What happens if you’ve scanned half your items, then find the melon you want has lost it’s sticky barcode label? A lineup of people behind you and no store clerk in sight to help. Maybe there is a techie way of solving this problem but I would rather not have to find out. Sadly however, it looks as if I eventually will. But only kicking and screaming. Despite what those in upper management say, you can bet your bottom dollar that over time jobs will be lost. And what are all those people going to do to make a living? Go on welfare? Maybe the government should ban self checkouts. And I totally agree with you about the importance of social interaction. A good read a Lynda. Thanks. Now maybe the powers that be will listen to us before we all become a bunch of robots. Not holding my breath through.

    1. Lynda Davis 28 October 2019 at 2:28 pm

      I fear we’re fighting a losing battle. But we’ll soldier on. Thanks, Perry.

  5. Paul Whiteside 28 October 2019 at 10:36 am

    I avoid self checkouts like the plague as I do enjoy the interaction with live people. Starting my working life as a bagger in a grocery store and speaking to each customer as well as helping them unload to their car was a good chance to interact with adults. Now days you barely see a bagger as the checkout person or you have to bag you own groceries. Life was a lot simpler back then but time marches on and we call all of this progress?

    1. Lynda Davis 28 October 2019 at 2:30 pm

      I love it in Florida where Publix always has baggers. Usually they’re old folks like us or students. Great way to hurry things along and provide jobs. Thanks for your comments, Paul.


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