Sylvain Charlebois: Are Self-Checkouts Winning the Machine vs. Human Battle?

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Only a few years ago, self-checkouts were seen as job killers by many Canadians. For a few years, grocers just did not know what to think of self-checkouts. Consumers had a love-hate relationship with them. Some saw them as job killers, relacing humans who desperately needed employment. Others quietly used them, either preferring a speedy exit or simply avoiding unnecessary human interaction, making self-checkouts valuable for anti-socialites. But with the pandemic, self-checkouts are becoming more popular, and grocers have noticed.

Since the start of the pandemic, 25% of Canadians have changed where they typically shop for groceries, according to a recent survey by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with Caddle. The survey was conducted in mid-to-late May of 2021 and included 10,024 Canadians. 25% is an astonishing number. Of this percentage, a good portion of respondents admitted that a switch was necessary due to declared COVID cases related to the store they were regularly visiting. Consumers are clearly concerned about potential exposure to the virus, or anything else for that matter.

In the same survey, Canadians were asked about how they intend to exit the grocery store in months to come. A whopping 53.2% of Canadians intend to use self-checkouts regularly over the next 6 months or so. 60.1% of Gen Zs (born between 1997 and 2005) and Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are planning to use self-checkouts more often. Self-checkouts are almost as popular as cashiers now.  

Barely two years ago, these numbers were quite different. According to CivicScience, in 2019 only 19% of customers ages 55 and older were willing to use self-checkout counters, compared to 35% of customers between the ages of 35 and 54. The youngest customers have always been more open to using them, but that percentage was only at 42% in 2019. At the time, cashiers were still the most popular choice for all demographic groups.

Throughout the pandemic, grocers have noticed more people are using self-checkouts and, therefore, more stores are installing more machines. Even those stores that removed their machines are now putting them back again. Many will remember record-breaking sales by grocers last year, but 2021 is a very different scenario. Statistics Canada recently reported that grocery store sales had dropped more than 1.5% for the third month in a row. Grocers will need to work hard to retain their market share and make their customers feel safe, and self-checkouts will likely be part of the strategy.

While visiting the grocery store, our focus now is to stay physically distant from other human beings. It is only natural to do the same while exiting the store. Some Canadians will continue to use cashiers, but their numbers will still be less than before the pandemic. We are expecting more grocers to adopt more technologies to make the whole grocery shopping experience safer, and perhaps even less social, in the aftermath of the pandemic. We do not know how long this will last, but the use of new technologies to make everything more efficient, more capital-focused, and less dependent on labour will likely grow, to the dismay of organized labour. But few want underpaid employees who are constantly exposed to contamination. With margins being so low in food retailing, paying them more would mean eventually increasing food prices. This is something we will need to appreciate at some point if we want employees in the grocery business to earn a decent living.  

The self-checkout technology is and never has been great. Scanning issues, weighing the wrong produce, coding discounts, and other problems at self-checkouts are numerous. Unlike ATM banking machines, which have been operating seamlessly over the last 30 years, grocers have had issues creating an enjoyable self-checkout experience for most customers. In many cases, the experience is interrupted by an embarrassing call for assistance from a nearby clerk whose only job is to save you from technological misery. But with more shoppers committed to using them, we are expecting some changes, for the better.

For grocers, the exit has always been the most mismanaged part of the grocery shopping experience. Self-checkouts are only part of our grocers’ journey to embrace innovation that helps make our trips less onerous. Grocers went from fast cashiers with few items in the 70s and 80s, to self checkouts in the 90s, to perhaps a self-checkout model for which stopping at the exit will no longer be necessary. One day, we will likely be able to exit a store as everything in our smart carts is automatically scanned. A cart that could do the thinking and calculating for you and the store.

Self-checkouts are not about replacing humans. Instead, they are more about how we can more effectively utilize humans to make our grocery industry more efficient. 

Article Author

Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.

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  1. I wonder what it is like for non-grocery retailers. Recently we were shopping at a fairly new Canadian Tire store in Sidney BC and they had no self checkouts like other older CT stores.

  2. This article makes it sound as though l older customers are afraid of using self-checkouts. This isn’t the case at all and is a stereotype, as most people 55+ are extremely tech-savvy (you have to be in order to have a job!). Why I won’t use a self-checkout is because I feel that doing so contributes to putting people out of work. It has nothing to do with not wanting to use technology.


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