Unexpected consequences of self-checkout

I heard an interesting report on Marketplace on surprises in the self-checkout lane. Impulse buying is down, and stores have come up with other ways to entice you into buying something you hadn't planned. And it turns out that fears from retailers that customers would cheat at the self-checkout turned out to be misplaced:

The reality of the situation is that most losses or theft come from the employees themselves. One of the things that we're realizing is actually that customers are more honest than the people that are working there.

Comments (45)
  1. Anonymous says:

    Maybe because the customers are usually making more money than the people that are working there?

  2. Wesha says:

    Ohh, I ALWAYS go for the checkout lane. At least I don’t have to explain to the computer that I DON’T need a bag for the item that has its own convenient handle. Also, it’s a very convenient way to get rid of pennies without getting weird looks.

  3. rob says:

    "Maybe because the customers are usually making more money than the people that are working there?"

    As a long-time (former) wage slave, I can tell you this is a powerful motivator…

    That and the perpetual exposure to tasty treats!

  4. tsrblke says:

    @ Wesha,

    My stores just removed a bag holder on the inventory scale at the end that says "Place Unbagged Items here"  IT works quite well.

  5. mikeb says:

    > Ohh, I ALWAYS go for the checkout lane. At least I don’t have to explain to the computer that I DON’T need a bag for…

    I hate those self-checkout things.  I find that the self-checkout computer complains that I’m not doing things right far more than a real checker (then again I’ve only tried about twice, so maybe I’m just a luddite bonehead).

    I’ll walk out of the store buying nothing if I have just a few items and there’s only self-checkout and a single line with cartloads of stuff in it.  Oh well,  I suppose since it’s just a few items they probably don’t care.  Unfortunately, I steer away from those stores in general now, so they don’t get my cartloads either.

    If I wanted to work in a grocery store, I imagine that I’d fill in a job application.

  6. GregM says:

    I was SO happy a couple weeks ago when my grocery store finally got 4 self-checkout lanes.  That means that when I go really early in the morning on my way to work to buy a couple things and there’s only one regular checkout line open, I don’t have to wait behind the huge carts of groceries there.

  7. J says:

    The self-checkout usually ends up cheating me.  I try to find the icon for regular grapes and end up with some exotic variety that costs much more per  pound than I should pay.  I’d rather accept defeat at the hands of the machine than have to wait for a clerk to mosey over and help me.

  8. Michael Moulton says:

    I won’t use them.  The prices I pay in the store include the cashier’s salary, so the cashier needs to earn it.  Prices didn’t drop when self checkouts were installed!

    If they want people to use them, offer a discount.  1 or 2% off your purchase if you use the self checkout, since they don’t need to pay a cashier to do it for you.

  9. AC says:

    Wow, a lot of negativity towards self-checkout. I prefer them to the chatty checkout clerk who feels compelled to comment on my items because they have nothing else to do. I was quite happy when some of the stores started using unlimited item self-checkouts.

  10. It has always been true that employees do most all of the stealing.  That is why Best Buy searches any packages that employees leave with, but they don’t do that for customers.  Likewise the majority of the security cameras at banks point at the tellers, not at the customer.  Fast food restaurants will give you free food if your cashier doesn’t give you a receipt, because they need a paper trail to prevent the employees from skimming off the top.

  11. JS says:

    Actually, they do need an employee for the self-checkouts, because half the time the damn thing doesn’t work and the employee needs to come over and flash their barcode to authorize some action or another. Waste of time if you ask me.

  12. Chris Moorhouse says:

    I wonder, are self-checkouts asynchronus?

  13. L Sanders says:

    I find that the self checkout never works right and I need the employee monitoring the machines to reset them, but I still use them – think of the self-checkout employee as a checkout clerk with no line.

  14. Steve says:

    "Maybe because the customers are usually making more money than the people that are working there?"

    So you are saying that the less money you earn the less ethical and moral you are? Then WTF happened at Enron?

  15. Mike says:

    I love self-checkouts, but only if one is already open or I will be the next person.  Most of the people that use the machines are extremely slow and/or get confused even though the screen tells them exactly what to do.  It’s usually faster to go via a cashier if there’s any line at all.

    The main problem with the cashier is that if I’m only buying one or two things they have to be practically physically restrained from using a bag.  Just telling them "no bag please" isn’t enough, even if you tell them two or three times.

  16. Steve says:

    @Michael Moulton – The self checkout is just the retail indistry streamlining their business to save some cost associated with doing business. If every business was required/expected to pass those savings on to the customer you’d still be driving a horse to work and milking a cow before breakfast.

    In my experience there is always a human checkout clerk available during reasonable business hours so you can still use them if you want.

    For people like me who have learned to optimize my use of the auto-checkout to the point where it is waaaaaay faster than the clerk, I have the choice to do that and both the business and I reap the benefits. They get me out of their store without paying someone to wait on me and I get to speed through the experience.

    Retailers: You can keep your savings, thanks for the automated checkout!

  17. John says:

    So instead of having 20 registers available but only 2 open we’ll have 20 self-checkout lanes but 18 of them will be out of order.

    This reminds me of a classic Simpsons quote:

    "The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: to build and maintain those robots."

    This is way off-topic, but something I’ve always wondered about.  Does Microsoft have any procedures for dealing with authors of exploitable code?  I.e. did the guy who wrote the ANI parsing code get any kind of disciplinary measures, security-related training, etc. in response to his code being exploited?  Do you keep track of who wrote what exploited code?  If your code was exploited by a devestating worm would you have to buy the rest of your group lunch for a week?  I mean it’s one thing for a 3rd party to have vulnerabilities in their application (or even libraries), but when they’re in the operating system itself everyone is affected.  I can’t help but imagine what it must be like to know YOUR code contained a vulnerability that led to the infection of (potentially) MILLIONS of computers.  On one hand, it must feel awesome knowing that your code can affect that many people; on the other hand, it must feel horrible knowing that you affected them in a negative way.  I suppose Hitler is in a similar situation.  What he did was horrible, obviously, but the scale on which he did it was impressive.

  18. Shog9 says:

    I rarely use the self checkout for one very specific reason: two pairs of eyes catch more errors than one. Yup, the old open source / pair programming mantra!

    I’ve found that, in my hurry to scan items, i’ll often miss incorrect prices or forget about two-for-one deals that require manual assistance. When going through the normal checkout, i’m free to focus on the prices as items are scanned, calling out any errors or omissions, while the cashier takes care of the grunt work.

  19. cmov says:

    Oh yeah RFID would be nice. I’d get away with just about anything for €0.

  20. Weiguo says:

    people really believe that using the cashiers is "getting your money’s worth"?  It’s as if people believe that value is more about how much of the other party’s money you waste than it is about how much you save yourself.

    I’m reminded of a story about someone who would stay in hotel rooms with 2 beds, sleep in one bed, then get up and roll around in the other just to "get his money’s worth" by making the maids work harder.

  21. Bob says:

    To John

    <quote>If your code was exploited by a devestating worm would you have to buy the rest of your group lunch for a week?</quote>

    I don’t know about that, but during Sasser (sql exploit) I was a technical router on contract at microsoft and the sql team catered lunch for our team the whole week and even breakfast a couple days.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Self-checkout doesn’t look with suspicion at the piece of cardboard I carry around with four stores’ loyalty card barcodes printed on it (it’s ridiculous how many pieces of plastic you have to carry around you every day).  As though I were Cap’N Crunch and they were the touchtone phone.

    Self-checkout doesn’t ask me for the 23rd time if I want to save 10% on this order by signing up for their credit card.  If it did, I’d be able to dismiss it in less than a second on the touchscreen.

    Self-checkout isn’t lazy.  I want to get out of the store as soon as possible, I’m a highly motivated checker.  If the high-school junior checker works faster, (s)he just gets to do more work for the store, for probably the same wage.  The incentives are now aligned towards speed.

  23. Equality says:

    "The prices I pay in the store include the cashier’s salary, so the cashier needs to earn it.  Prices didn’t drop when self checkouts were installed!"

    The prices I pay (presumably) include the cost of the self-checkout machines. Those machines were designed by software and hardware engineers.

    As a poster on this blog, I would’ve thought you are related to engineering and would promote that.

    My real point is: nothing is free. Cashiers aren’t free and neither are machines (nor engineers)

    My biggest complaint is WalMart’s self-checkout always wants age-verification when I buy a R-rated movie. No cashier would ever ask me for ID.

    I still use the machines because it is faster than WalMart cashiers.

  24. mikeb says:

    > people really believe that using the cashiers is "getting your money’s worth"?

    For me it’s not really that – it’s that I find self-checkout to be more hassle than the standard checkout.  The couple of times I tried, the machine had problems with how I was bagging my stuff (or how I was weighing my fruit or something).  Maybe I just need proper training. On second thought, I’d rather not.

    For everyone who has some sort of problem communicating with checkers, I have very little trouble simply saying "no thanks" (or whatever’s appropriate) when they ask me if I need a bag, a credit card application, or whatever.

  25. Equality says:

    I’ve never gotten strange looks for declining a bag. Maybe because I live in California.

    In fact, some cashiers will even ask if I want a bag for small items. I appreciate that.

    I never met one that refused to bag something.

    This may change as cities ban plastic bags or start taxing them. San Francisco might have already done that.

  26. Weiguo says:

    <b>mikeb</b> — my comments were directed at people who claimed that they refused to use the self-checkouts so as to make the cashiers earn their salary.

    if the self-checkouts are slower for you than the regular lines, that’s a perfectly valid reason to use the cashiers.  I just suspect that others are dressing up such pragamatism in self-righteousness at not getting a part of the savings.

  27. Nawak says:

    I know two types of self checkout system, one that I fear and one that… I fear less.

    The one I fear the most is the one you talk about: a register with nobody. Sometimes you can’t make the barcode to be recognized, or the system stupidly annonce that the weight difference when you put the item on the scale does not match with the item, etc. Then you have to wait for someone to unlock the register… But the main downside for me is how boring it is and how slow I am compared to a clerk.

    The other system is quite nice: they give you a handheld barcode scanner and you scan your items as you walk through the store. Then you go to a special line and the clerk only makes you pay the sum the scanner reports. No need to put your items out of their bags to put them back in a minute later. Just pay and go. No big  waiting line (constant and low checkout time). The downside is that you have to force yourself to *think* about scanning each item you put in the caddy and it breaks the usual lazy/dreamy wandering I have been used to. And I should include that the rare random check can also sometimes cancel the other advantages.

    What I’m waiting for is RFID so that you can checkout a whole caddy at once without taking the items out AND be dreamy when you shop.

  28. Wolf Logan says:

    I prefer the self-checkout because I never find myself waiting in line while the self-checkout machine carries on a long conversation with the person in front of me about the health and occupation of all of their relatives, long after the checkout transaction is completed.

    I mean, really, while I suppose it’s nice that the clerks have a "get to know the customer" attitude, their primary job is to get people checked out and on their way. The several extra minutes of chit-chat could have gotten another person or two out of the store and on with their lives.

    This happens fairly often in my area, and in a wide variety of different stores. It’s roughly equivalent to the sales clerk who won’t handle your transaction because they’re chatting on the phone with a friend.

  29. I live about 300 yards from a store with two self-service stations, each with 4 checkouts covered by one cashier.

    I like them for two major reasons. One, once you learn how to use them (you must scan your item and you must put it on the scale before moving on), it can become faster than a clerk for 1-5 items or so, and I find living that close to a store has caused me to shop like that more often. (As I work at home, this is a good excuse to get  out of the house sometimes.)

    The other reason is that it took some time, but the situation seems to have stabilized with one line for each station of four, which IIRC minimizes the average wait time for service and cuts down the variability too. (It’s late, so my first point may be wrong, but I’m confident about the second and I’m still happy just not to pay a 10-minute penalty for picking the clerk that will require five minutes to verify whether the milk is $2.54 or $2.23 this week.) I wish they’d merge the conventional lines, too.

  30. Drak says:

    A nice method of checking out I saw while on holiday in Hong Kong was as follows:

    • one line
    • 4 cashiers

    when a cashier is done with a customer a light goes on above their station and the next person in line goes there for checkout.

    That worked quite well, no more always standing in the slowest line (well, technically you are always IN the slowest line because there is no other line).

  31. Spike says:

    I read somewhere that women will buy something they don’t need if it’s sold at a discount while men will happily pay a premium for something they really need.

    Based on that I’d like to see supermarkets having a "Business class" checkout.  Staffed by the fastest (probably most mature) checkout assistant witha dedicated bagging person working alongside.   This checkout charges a premium of (say) $1.  few people would want to use this checkout and so there would be little or no queueing and the service would be fast and courteous.  I’d use it every time.  Even when just buying a can of coke.

  32. Nigel says:

    "customers are more honest than the people that are working there."

    I wonder if that’s true?  Or is it that more people are prepared to rob their employer than are prepared to rob a random store?

  33. Rick C says:


    Fry’s here in Texas (and, I assume, other places) does that too.  One line feeding approximately 30 registers (nowhere near all of which are usally manned at one time, of course) with a person at the head of the line to point people to the next available register.

    Best Buy’s moving to that model too.  I haven’t experienced long lines with it yet but I think it’s a bit faster.

  34. Michael Moulton says:

    @Equality – No, the machines aren’t free, but neither were the scanners & registers the cashiers use.  Most likely the costs aren’t that different (in reality the hardware is virtually the same).

    They could go the other way– no discount for self checkout, but a charge for a cashier.  That would have the same effect.

    I don’t go to a gas station and expect to pay the same price for full service and self service.  Why is this different?

  35. Nawak says:


    I’ve seen some stores (indirectly) do that: Lines reserved for people with the store’s credit card.

    They are very often empty… but people don’t like to buy their groceries at credit around here… those kind of expensives credit only work for more expensive items.

  36. Adrian Wilkins says:

    I refuse to use self-checkouts. I’ll avoid them wherever I see them.

    You’re taking money out of the pockets of people who really need it, and putting it in the pockets of people who already jingle when they move.

    The consultant who did their auto-checkout survey says "They’re simply aren’t enough people to take those jobs.". I call BS. There are always plenty of dirt poor unemployed. He either means "There aren’t enough people prepared to work at such a lousy wage.", or "The store isn’t prepared to hire enough people to work the registers."

    The engineer in me likes the efficiency of the solution. But you have to remember that we create technology to serve us and improve our lives, and I don’t see it here.

  37. Goplat says:

    Adrian Wilkins: If everybody had this knee-jerk attitude about obsoleting somebody’s job, there never would have even been an industrial revolution, let alone computers. Ultimately the total amount of employment stays pretty much constant no matter how much technology advances, because other sectors of the economy can grow as a result.

  38. My Safeway used to have them, and then ripped them out, much to my disappointment. My Fred Meyer still has them, and I use them whenever I can.


    1) Shopping at odd times doesn’t leave waiting a long time

    2) Groceries can get bagged correctly (I worked at a Safeway in high school, and plastic bags make many checkers lazy (though I do like that I can carry 7 bags in one hand))

    3) Much faster than waiting on a checkstand.

    4) No time wasted by the checker looking for my name so they can call me by name (Safeway corporate policy, which I hate)

    5) No time wasted by the checker forgetting to hit the "process transaction" key after I’ve done my credit card stuff.


    1) Harder to play "choose the cutest checker"

  39. David Harmon says:

    Hah, I thought this was going to be about how windows programs shut down all their subtasks before exiting.

  40. Igor says:

    I would apreciate those self-checkouts here in Serbia. Few days ago I was in a local supermarket and only three checkout lines were open and then just before it was my turn they closed the line I was standing in leaving around 50 people in the store with only two checkout lines, both of them already full and awfully slow. I wasted like 20 minutes standing in line for a few things I had in basket.

  41. This does seem to be true.  The self checkout lines are insanely insecure, and indeed have provided me with a good amount of fun thinking up of various ways to bypass their rudimentary security.

    In the end, I am too honest to actually perform any of the exploits.  Though if apples go above $2.50/lb….

  42. Lessons says:

    "Or is it that more people are prepared to rob their employer than are prepared to rob a random store?"

    Employees are simply more qualified to rob their employer: they know how the store works, how the money moves, where the cameras are, etc.

    On-the-job training is wonderful. :=)

    Adrian, how about: the customers are not willing to pay extra for the benefit of those working there? The obvious example being WalMart – we all know how they operate and yet they attract huge crowds every day.

    Remember when banks had to close at 2pm so that checks can be manually tallied by 5pm? Automated Clearing is a huge improvement. OK, so tellers are skilled laber but the point still stands.

  43. Maggie says:

    I really like the self checkouts.  The only problem is that there are often lines waiting for these as well as the regular lines.  The self checkouts are the only express lanes in the store.

    I learned early on to scan things that are light in weight first to avoid hassles with it not detecting if I put something in a bag.

    Also I can bag all of my raw foods separate from the cooked items and arrange the food in bags to make unloading easier at home.

  44. There seem to be some economic issues that are misunderstood in this thread.

    Self-checkout is a universal boon to everyone concerned… the shopper, the store owner, and, yes, even the checkout clerks.

    Feel free to dislike self-checkout for personal reasons; for aesthetic reasons; for technical reasons; but if you choose to dislike self-checkout for economic reasons, I must cry foul.

    Self-checkout undeniably lowers the store’s cost of doing business; it is cheaper to pay a single cashier to monitor four checkout lines than it is to pay two cashiers to each monitor there own cashier-driven line.  (In my experience, cashier-driven lines move about twice as fast as any given self-checkout line.)

    If the store’s cost of going business goes down, they can make a profit (yay.)  Likely the specter of competition will immediately eat into this profit; the profit will probably go into slower-rising prices, or higher wages for the employees, or broader selection, or something.

    Someone suggested that money was going to be taken out of cashiers’ pockets.  Probably true in the short term, but the cashiers’ loss is more than offset by the store’s gain.

    The good news is that unskilled laborers can react to a changing job market much better than can skilled laborers.  The market will readjust; wages/perks will go down slightly across the grocery-store-clerk/pizza-delivery-person/gas-station-attendent pool, and then another service will pop up that has just become economically viable, and things will go back to normal.

    Compare the skilled laborer.  What do VHS repairmen do?  Learn another skill.

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