At first it seems fun, scanning your own groceries. Didn’t you have one of those plastic cashier desks when you were a kid? Now you can do it for real! However, if you think about it from your ‘adult’ perspective it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why am I suddenly doing unpaid work that my supermarket used to provide as a service?! They’re taking advantage of my childhood memories! Maybe, but let’s examine why these self-scans are sprouting up all over the city in the first place. Are they beneficial to both business and consumer alike?
Whereas these self-scans (or self-checkouts) are a relatively new phenomenon in the Netherlands, during my semester in Newcastle they were already littered all over the place. From supermarkets to drug stores and hardware stores, you could play cashier wherever you wanted to. And it's not just in-store shopping: we are also selecting our own movie seats, printing our own event tickets and checking ourselves into flights. Following simple market logic, there must be huge financial pros to such self-checkout systems for businesses to implement them so eagerly. And of course there is: overhead costs decrease because machines don’t complain about an absence of salaries, and neither do you have to pay your customers for scanning their own stuff (would be nice though). As such, the self-checkout systems have become immensely popular in a short amount of time. Per illustration: at airport check-in, the cost to process a passenger through an electronic terminal (€0,14) is just a tiny amount of what it used to cost with a staffed desk (€3).
No matter how big the cost savings may be, part of it is very likely to be compensated by increased amounts of stolen inventory. A recent survey found that nearly 20% of all shoppers in a certain supermarket admitted to having stolen at the self-checkout recently. Of course this problem is mostly related to in-store ‘physical’ shopping. It will still be quite hard to cheat yourself into a full airplane, and you have to be a very skilled hacker to get tickets to a full movie in Pathé. In contrast, it is quite simple to steal stuff in a grocery store where random checks occur every 1 in 20 times and they only scan the first three products they see in your bag (I’ll leave the rest to your genius brain). During my time in the U.K., I found that supermarket managers ran into this problem quite early. Accordingly, scales were incorporated in all the check-out units that measure the weight of the groceries that is supposed to be in the bag according to what you scanned, and what is actually in the bag. When the weight doesn’t add up, it screams ‘UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGAGING AREA!’ or ‘ITEM REMOVED!’. My guess is, it actually used to scream ‘YOU FILTHY THIEF!’, but some old grannies that genuinely mistook a €15 T-bone steak for a cheap apple got a little too embarrassed by that.
So except for dubiously immoral reasons, are there any benefits for consumers? In my personal experience, going to the Albert Heijn on the Vismarkt for just one small grocery on a Saturday evening has become a lot less infuriating due to the self-checkouts. I have to admit I miss the wild flirting (read: making eye contact) with pretty cashiers, so that’s a con. Apparently however, some consumers feel the exact opposite on this matter: there are serious psychological factors at play in the world of self-checkout systems. A recent study in HBR found that “the market share of difficult-to pronounce items increased 8.4%” after installation of self-checkout in a liquor store. “The researchers concluded that consumers might fear being misunderstood or appearing unsophisticated in front of the clerks,” As such, self-service kiosks do not only speed things up, but they also free us of any judgment one might possibly encounter from a living, breathing employee. The horror!
Fun fact: Albert Heijn is now opening stores where you only have to tap a credit card onto the product you want to buy. Then 10 minutes after you exit the shop, the amount gets deducted from your account. That way, you can avoid even more human contact! Seems like cashiers are not the only ones being turned into robots…
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