The self-checkout vs cashiers debate has been going on for quite some time. There are advocates for both models and the public seems rather undecided as well. That debate is set to get even more heated as Walmart is starting to test a no-cashiers model in one of their stores.
In Fayetteville, Arkansas Walmart is setting up a self-checkout only store to see how their customers respond. The store won’t have any cashiers anymore although there will still be some assistants to help customers with the self-checkout machines when needed. With this test, the store chain is likely looking at several factors:
- How much is the store going to save from the cashiers’ salaries they’d no longer have to pay?
- How fast are the self-checkout lines going to move?
- How often will customers require assistance with the self-checkout machines?
- How is the customers’ satisfaction going to change?
- Are any customers going to “flee” to the competition?
That last question is important for the short-term but it won’t matter very much if all stores eventually move to a “Self-checkout only” model at some point. After all, then there won’t be anywhere to “flee”.
What are the benefits of the self-checkouts model for both the store owner and the customer?
Many people enjoy doing their own checkout at the store and find it to be quicker and more private. Don’t want to be judged by a stranger for your purchases? Self-checkouts remove that risk.
Plus, at least in theory, the money saved from the cashiers’ salaries ought to be deduced from the store’s prices, right? They usually aren’t but that’s still a benefit from the point of view of the store – a major benefit.
A recent Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report called Embracing the Self-Serving Economy determined that checking someone in at an airport staffed desk costs about $3 per person. The same action via an electronic terminal costs just fourteen cents. Similar cost differences likely apply to convenience stores like Walmart so that’s a pretty significant monetary incentive.
Is this a benefit or a drawback?
Another proposed benefit of self-checkouts is a bit more theoretical – it’s that they are “faster” than cashier-operated checkouts. This sounds logical at first – automated tasks are usually performed more efficiently than man-operated tasks.
There’s research done on the topic too but the answer still seems unclear. In practice, whether the self-checkout’s speed is a pro or a con depends on the person.
If the machine works flawlessly and the customer knows what they’re doing, they’ll likely get out of the store quicker.
If, however, there’s a problem with the machine, with the products’ barcodes, or the customer isn’t 100% sure what they’re doing – the delays can be quite significant.
In a 2004 experiment with self-checkouts, for example, McDonald’s determined that self-checkouts take 30% more of the customers’ time, on average. Of course, this was ~16 years ago so things have surely changed since then. By how much, however, we can’t know for sure.
What are the drawbacks of self-checkouts?
Moving into more definitive drawbacks, those are quite numerous as well. In fact, there’s plenty of additional research to suggest that the majority of people still prefer to work with cashiers. This alone, from the store’s point of view, should make the “self-checkout only” model undesirable. Whether Walmart’s Fayetteville experiment confirms that remains to be seen.
But why do so many customers dislike self-checkouts? Apart from the potentially slower checkout times, here are a few other reasons:
1. People don’t like the extra work. At the end of the day, checking out store products is work. That’s why cashiers get paid after all. It may not seem like that much work if you’ve only got 2-3 items and they all go through the machine without a hitch but when you have a full cart and multiple items don’t go through, it becomes a chore. If store chains decided to give customers discounts for using the self-checkouts, opinions may start to change. As of now, opinions like this seem prevalent: “I’m starting to resent doing unpaid work,” says Bonnie Banks from Whitby, Ontario, Canada. “And it seems to be escalating.”
2. They feel dehumanizing. Sure, we don’t go to the store to interact with other people. In fact, most customers explicitly dislike interacting with cashiers. Nevertheless, it’s still a form of human interaction that will be missed once it’s gone. If we lose cashiers, then bus and taxi drivers, then waiters and waitresses, and other positions to automation, the world can start getting pretty boring.
“It often takes the human being out of the equation,” Craig Lambert, author of Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. “Those small relationships are part of how you build a community, frankly. Robots don’t interchange banter. There’s no pleasantries going back and forth between you and the kiosk. And as a result, it somewhat dehumanizes daily life.”
3. Automation is coming for most of us. Speaking of robots taking over the world – experiments like that of Walmart are a part of the process. It may not be the way Skynet did it in Terminator but it seems like it’s happening and it’s going to include a rapidly rising unemployment rate. The statistics and prognosis about it seem pretty clear and even politicians are talking about it.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, for example, built his entire presidential campaign around the idea of a universal social security-type income for all citizens as a solution to automation-related unemployment. He called it the “Freedom Dividend” and while people literally laughed at him on-stage, just a year later, many other politicians started talking and employing similar universal financial assistance due to the Covid-19 crisis.
Still, an effective and all-encompassing solution to automation doesn’t seem to be coming soon so Walmart’s experiment may prove costly to countless cashiers if it’s deemed “successful”.
What does this mean for the rest of us?
Nothing really, at least not as of now. The people of Fayetteville, Arkansas will get to test the new system but even if (or when) Walmart decides to expand the system on a larger scale – that’s when we’ll see its true effect on both consumers and cashiers.