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Grocer Self-Checkouts Might Be on the Way Out

I remember when grocery self-checkouts seemed like such a novelty. The little kiosks with the red scanners you brought your items to were supposed to be a great thing for customers. But has it been good for food retailers?

Grocery store theft is on the rise. When you go to a self-checkout, a clerk watches with hawk eyes. It could be an extension of customer service, but it seems to be a bit more than that.

Once, when my card did not work due to being worn down, a woman rushed over nervously and asked me if there was a problem. I was puzzled at first and told her to see if I could run the card the old-fashioned way and not with the chip—and it worked!

I thought to myself, do I look like I am planning to rip off the store of yogurt, cottage cheese and muffins? I didn't think so, but it is not always easy for a clerk to judge who is honest and who is not. I am sure they are instructed to keep a close eye on anyone going through a self-service check stand.

The Atlantic called self-checkouts "a failed experiment" in an October piece, and I couldn't agree more. 

Scanning items can be frustrating. More than once, I have scanned an item one time, but the item showed up twice—on a recent grocery run, even three times. When you need them, you can't find a clerk. I stood for a while waiting for an employee to show up, but that never happened. So I had to abandon my items at the scanner and run around the store until I found someone to help me. I'm fairly computer literate, but this was a fix I couldn't do myself.

Anyway, she told me that the kiosk picked up the item three times. I'm not sure how that happened, but machines, like people, have glitches. Often enough, prices are misprogrammed, and you don't get the discount that's advertised. I always check now that the price scans correctly because none of us want to pay more than we have to with already inflated grocery prices. 

As far as being convenient and supposedly quicker, you still have to wait in line, even at the self-checkout—sometimes for a ridiculous amount of time. I don't always like small talk with strangers although I am told I can be personable. Call me an extroverted introvert.

However, it can be refreshing to talk with another human being in a very impersonal and automated world. When I recently went to a Safeway near my home there was a huge line on the self-checkout, so I wandered over to a lone cashier. I had bought a half pound of Chinese chicken salad from the deli. Usually, I make my own stuff because I really fine-tuned my cooking skills during the pandemic, which was one positive byproduct of a hellish time for us all.

The woman who wore her hair in a long ponytail smiled beautifully at me, looking at my deli item, and said "That looks good!" I replied, "Thanks, it is, and better yet, it's on sale today." She proceeded to share a story about her grandson and the special cake she was making for his birthday. She was a kind and sweet person. It can feel nice to have a simple exchange with another human being. 

Speaking of which, retail giant Walmart put the kibosh on computerized kiosks and has taken them out of stores nationwide and in Canada. The reasons included an increase in theft.

It's not hard for a would-be thief to approach a scanner and not scan everything, especially if no one is around. Theft is listed as a $100 billion liability in the U.S.

I really don't mind if self-checkouts go for good. Often, I order online anyway and get stuff delivered or use a service that allows me to pick up my groceries from a store. My personal experience with computerized checkouts has not always been positive. Sometimes, old-fashioned ways are not so bad.

If taking computerization out of retailers creates more jobs for people, I'm all for it.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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