Grocery Stores Giving Up on Self-Checkout Lanes. Finally.

I'm morally opposed to the self-checkout lanes at grocery stores.

OK, not morally opposed, but I have strong feelings about them.

OK, not strong feelings, but I get really irritated with them.

OK, not really irritated.

Look, I'm making this harder than it needs to be. I just don't like self-checkout lanes at grocery stores. Period. That's it. 

They're impersonal, they're slow, and they're prone to errors. They're supposed to make things go faster, but they end up slowing things down to a glacial pace. Slower than being behind someone with an overflowing cart and a checkbook.

I like the pace of dealing with a human-operated checkout lane — they're fast, but I have time for a conversation. I like being able to speak with another human since I work at home and have limited social interactions. And I like that this job is helping them provide for themselves and their family. 

"But self-checkouts are a cost-saving device," the grocery chains said when they started using self-checkouts. "They help us to save money on overhead costs."

"Overhead costs" is an MBA code word for "paying our workers." It's the term grocery chain executives, who earn a comfortable six-figure salary, for paying their workers the lowest wages they can without running afoul of the 13th Amendment.

And now these executives with their high-priced MBAs want to eliminate those pesky "overhead costs" and make us do all the work in scanning and bagging our own groceries.

But do we shoppers realize any of those savings? Did the price of groceries drop when they cut all the human cashiers? Do we get a self-checkout discount?

Are you kidding? No one even thanked us for helping them put their cashiers out of work.

Prices not only didn't change, they went up.

Do you know what else went up?

Theft. Theft shot way up.

Only, they don't call it theft. They have another MBA code word for it: "shrinkage," which is normally what happens when the pool is too cold.

Despite their money-saving efforts, self-checkout shrinkage increased as much as 16 times over the cashier-operated lanes, equalling roughly 3.5% of their total sales.

The average shrinkage for traditional cashier lanes is 0.21%. That's point-two-one percent.

That's less, and I didn't need an MBA to tell you that.

So to combat all the shrinkage, grocery chains put more of their products — razors, over-the-counter drugs, electronics, and some groceries — behind plexiglass, requiring them to be unlocked by grocery store staff.

But people got tired of waiting for the assistant night manager to show up with the key, and they went to a place where customers weren't treated like criminals.

That didn't solve the self-checkout shrinkage, though. It didn't stop people from doing things like buying three items but only scanning two. Or entering a product number for bananas, but putting a steak in the grocery bag. Or scanning counterfeit bar codes worn on their wrist.

I should point out that these are things you should not do. They are not helpful money-saving suggestions, they're bad things that drive up the price of groceries for everyone.

As grocery chains in the US and UK continued to experience shrinkage, they tried other ways to reduce it. A few chains installed scales in the bagging area and expensive security cameras to analyze items being scanned to make sure no one was stealing.

Except those systems often failed, either missing stolen items, or worse, incorrectly flagging someone for stealing.

One woman recently won a $2 million lawsuit against Walmart when they wrongly accused her of shoplifting. They weren't able to prove that she had stolen anything. And when pressed for security videos that would have proved her innocence, Walmart destroyed the tapes so they could not be used in court.

Two million dollars could have paid for a lot of human cashiers.

What have the grocery chains done in response to all of this?

Believe it or not, many have been eliminating the self-checkout lanes altogether after realizing they were a bad idea.

Booths, a UK grocery chain, removed self-checkout in all but two of its 28 stores. Walmart removed them from some of its stores in New Mexico. ShopRite removed them from their stores in Delaware after customers complained. And Costco is adding more staff in the self-checkout areas.

Following the Costco model, more stores are also requiring customers to show their receipts in order to prove they haven't shoplifted anything.

That's always a good customer move: "Hey, dirtbag, prove you didn't steal. Prove your innocence." Short of an Internet robot making me prove I'm not a robot, I can't imagine anything more insulting.

Do you know what else reduces the odds of things being stolen? Real humans, making a living wage, operating the cash registers at the checkout lanes.

I don't mind using self-checkout lanes when I have a few items, but I prefer human-powered lanes when I buy groceries. 

If nothing else, there's an added level of security because I'm not going to be the victim of a software glitch that accuses me of shoving a watermelon under my shirt.

It's five pounds of bacon, and I had that on me when I came here.

Photo credit: US Department of Energy (Rawpixel, Public Domain)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.