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Self-Checkout: A Consumer’s Rant

What is the impact of the convergence of technology and removal of previously provided human-based transactional services?

It happened to us first with the advent of the automatic teller machine in the 1980s. This was introduced as an example of “added convenience,” although everyone knew it was also the bank’s way of cutting costs (by having to keep less tellers employed to help their customers). Now for this “added convenience” of accessing our own money, we get charged if we try and take out our money from any ATM that isn’t the banks (although this varies from region to region).

But one thing that the banking industry got absolutely right was rock-solid ATM software for machines that need to be accessible and available 24/7. It is a pretty rare occurrence to drive up to an ATM that is “out of order” nowadays.

The retail industry could learn a thing or two from the banking industry in regard to replacing humans with machines. I am reaching my breaking point with the poor quality, scratched up scanners, and screwed up screens that can be found in virtually any retail establishment that has instituted a “self checkout” lane. (The U.S. Post Office is also an example of checkouts that have more screwed up LCD screens than any other retail establishment I’ve ever seen, in the dozen of local post offices I’ve visited.)

Look, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, BJs, IKEA, and Stop ‘n’ Shop. If you want me to use the self-checkout lanes at your store, please make sure they are functioning and in working order! I can’t tell you how many times (1 out of 2) that I walk to a self-checkout line and find one of the following problems:

  • Bar code scanners scratched up beyond belief, to the point where it takes 5 or 6 swipes of an item to get it to scan. This is the number one problem. I stood in an IKEA line the other day and tried scanning the same item 20 times (in 20 different ways, angles, etc.), all the while the stupid checkout person just looked on, helpless. (Yes, I felt like the hapless rat in some Skinner box experiment.) The solution? Simply replace the scanner glass! A $3 item fixes your customers’ frustration, yet most retailers seem clueless to this.
  • LCD payment screens that are screwed up. I’m sorry, but you’re asking me for information on a screen that I can’t even read! Please, check these once a week and ensure you replace them in a timely manner when they go bad. I’ve been to some stores where the same screwed-up screens are presented to me for months, showing little “care” in customer care (Hi, Home Depot!).
  • The same device that displays your payment information on the keypad is also the card swipe. Guess what, that card swipe is often bad, and makes your customers swipe their cards multiple times before they finally give up and try a different card. The card isn’t bad (I know, because I just used it in the gas station pump which has none of these problems), just your stupid card reader. Check these too regularly. Hey, if you need to, buy a $0.59 screw on every machine once a week just to ensure it’s working!
  • Get daily feedback from your self-checkout cashiers. Look, I know these people are trying to be helpful, but they are put in an awkward position when the technology they know is in bad shape keeps failing the customer. So get their feedback every week on what self-checkout lane needs maintenance, based upon their observations, instead of just telling them to “help the customer out.” I don’t want someone to tell me how to swipe a card (Umm, gee, I’ve only been doing this for a decade now). I want someone to note the problems and get something done about it!
  • You haven’t figured out how to let someone scan multiple, small items? Then make sure people know they shouldn’t use self-checkout. Regular checkout people can enter in one item, hit a quantity number (say 20), and be done with it. You can’t do that with self-checkout, and it’s a pain in the butt. If you’re really concerned with me ripping you off, then I probably shouldn’t be your customer in the first place.
  • Last, recognize that the self-checkout customer is saving you money, not the customer (in fact, it costs the customer effort to self-checkout). It costs me nothing to use the standard checkout method that’s been available to consumers for over 200 years. So don’t penalize me for choosing to help you out. And don’t give me some marketing baloney how such technologies “save the customer money.” No, they save you money. And if you don’t know how to run a profitable business without them (and keeping them well-maintained), then please, save us all the trouble and take them out and go back and hire some more checkout people.

Technologies such as ATM machines and self-checkout lanes are a part of our modern life. But I will often shop at my local supermarket (that has smiling cashiers and no self checkout line) over the bigger (and perhaps slightly cheaper) supermarket 10 miles away. And as much as I’m dependent upon Home Depot and Lowe’s for my self-improvement resources, I will start ensuring I use their cashiers over their self-checkout lanes if the quality and maintenance doesn’t improve soon.

Because what’s the point of all of this technology if it only aggravates your customers and makes them unhappy? Certainly, that’s not the intended point of these technologies, and yet, because of poor upkeep, that’s exactly what’s happening.

If ATM machines and gasoline pumps can handle hundreds of transactions a day with few hiccups, I imagine retail checkout lanes can do so as well. But it’s up to retailers to invest in the technology (and maintenance of that technology) that ensures the customer isn’t left standing there trying to scan something that won’t be scanned because of scratched glass or a bad card reader.

Something may be “gained” by substituting machines for people (in terms of convenience or speed, at least initially), but something is definitely lost as well. And that’s another piece of our humanity — the social transaction that is the foundation of every financial transaction. Perhaps that’s why Wall Street is a far different beast today than it was 30 years ago, because human interactions have largely been replaced by automated computer transactions and software.

We’ve all seen what replacing human transactions with computer transactions in the financial sector has done to our economy. And maybe our world as well.

Self-Checkout: A Consumer’s Rant

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Self-Checkout: A Consumer’s Rant. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Nov 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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