Self-Checkout: Money-Saving Innovation?

One of the great joys of moving to the Pacific Northwest after many years of living in Southern California, was discovering Costco. Not only did the drive from our home entail crossing a long floating bridge over Lake Washington providing a feast for the eyes, but the warehouse store was a treasure trove. Clean and staffed by helpful and competent workers, shopping became a fun outing rather than a chore.

Alas, eventually moving to the east coast dimmed the pleasure somewhat. The drive was nothing to boast about and the staff lacked the same degree of friendliness. Nonetheless, the choice of products, pricing, and checkout efficiency still made Costco a worthwhile destination.

Now, that last advantage has faded. To my dismay, self-checkout rolled out in many Costco stores over the past few years. Initially it was a choice but lately, in my local Costco as well as elsewhere, fewer and fewer staffed lines have been open. This pretty much forces shoppers to go to self-checkout. Not surprisingly, the waiting time for a self-checkout screen has increased and, since shoppers move more slowly than experienced staff, each transaction takes longer than it used to. Frequently, a consumer hits a glitch, slowing everything down until an employee comes and does the not-so-self checkout for them. Add one or two non-functioning stations and what used to be a speedy process becomes frustrating and annoying.

Aside from personal inconvenience, I bemoaned the advent of self-checkout as one more step to societal isolation. An activity that used to involve sharing smiles and exchanging a few words was instead becoming a solitary endeavor. In addition, a job that could be an entryway into the workforce was no longer available.

This is why I was delighted to read an article suggesting that the self-checkout experiment has not been a success. Walmart, for one, is beginning to close those lanes, citing increased theft as a rising problem. Costco is stationing more staff at self-checkout, a move that I hope leads them to say, “If we need staff involved in transactions, maybe we should just open more of the old-fashioned lanes.”

Adding self-checkout kiosks is an expensive business. I doubt that many stores will quickly mark it as money ill-spent and simply walk away. However, this seems one of those ideas (and there are so many) where what should have been anticipated consequences take management by surprise. For my own part, unlike many of my friends, I still prefer going into stores like Costco rather than ordering online. I think that the store should prefer that option as well. I rarely leave without (many) an item that wasn’t on my shopping list. But to get me to continue to come into the store, it needs to be a pleasant and straight-forward experience. Turning me into an unpaid worker is not a way to accomplish that goal.

This Musing is dedicated in memory of the four members of the Even family who were slaughtered in Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7, 2023: Chen, 45; Rinat, 44; Alon, 16; and Ido, 14. The youngest two children managed to escape.

And with prayers for the safe release of all the hostages and among them, Karina Ariev, age 19. Hamas publicized a photo of her and two other young women, lying in a jeep surrounded by terrorists.

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