Will Self-Checkout Ever Win Over Its Critics?


Self-checkout stations show little signs of slowing their expansion across retail, yet critics only appear to be getting louder.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, “Self-Checkout Is a Failed Experiment,” staff writer Amanda Mull contends that self-checkout has turned out to be the polar opposite of “convenient,” vexing both consumers and stores.

She opines that while the argument for self-checkout was “scan your stuff, plunk it in a bag, and you’re done. Long checkout lines would disappear,” the reality is vastly different.

“You still have to wait in line,” Mull laments. “The checkout kiosks bleat and flash when you fail to set a purchase down in the right spot. Scanning those items is sometimes a crapshoot — wave a barcode too vigorously in front of an uncooperative machine, and suddenly you’ve scanned it two or three times. Then you need to locate the usually lone employee charged with supervising all of the finicky kiosks, who will radiate exasperation at you while scanning her ID badge and tapping the kiosk’s touch screen from pure muscle memory.”

In a column for TastingTable, Dave McQuilling writes that beyond the “inevitable issues with scanning and bugs with the machines themselves,” along with the frequent need for assistance, having self-checkout stations “costs jobs, shifts responsibility onto the consumer, and serves as a startling example of how companies are happy to inconvenience people if it serves their bottom line.”

He mentioned the “invasive” cameras as well as the loss of human interaction from missing the brief conversations a few times a week with cashiers. McQuilling wrote, “Taking this away, as small and simple a thing as it is, is just a further slip toward the disconnected dystopian universe that science fiction has been trying to warn us about for a century.”

Christopher Andrews, a Drew University sociologist who wrote “The Overworked Consumer,” told CNN last year that, far from being the autonomous money collectors retailers were hoping for, self-checkout stations required supervision, maintenance, and IT support. Self-checkout, he said, “delivers none of what it promises.”

Walmart recently pulled self-checkout lanes from at least three stores in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ShopRites in Delaware began adding back cashiered lanes to stores, a sign that some retailers may be rethinking self-checkout technology.

Nonetheless, a VideoMining study released in April found self-checkout registers have now become the dominant checkout format in grocery, with its share of transactions rising to 55% in 2022 and the usage of self-checkout by grocery shoppers vaulting by 53% over the last five years. The rapid expansion was attributed to grocers looking to mitigate rising labor costs and shortages as well as seeking to reduce shopper wait times.

Recent consumer surveys from Raydiant and Zebra Technologies show in-store shoppers are increasingly preferring self-checkout options largely to avoid waiting in lines.

Ultimately, self-checkouts appear to be a work in progress. Target is testing self-checkout lanes of 10 items or fewer “in order to reduce wait times and better understand guest preferences.” At some Costco and Walmart locations, hybrid self-checkouts let store associates assist in scanning items. Kroger is introducing artificial intelligence technology that alerts store personnel if an item isn’t scanned.