Why you should boycott self-service checkouts

Self-service supermarket checkouts drive me crazy!


Why would the voiceover woman imagine that having been out into the world, obtained money, navigated my way to a supermarket and negotiated my way round it selecting from the dizzying array of products to fill my basket, the concept of scan, bag and pay is going to be beyond me?

“Have you swiped your Nectar [loyalty points] card?” she asks innocently. Both you and she are fully aware, of course, that she wouldn’t be asking if you had swiped it, so clearly she’s just been told that people respond better to questions than instructions. She’s been misinformed.

How the employees who have to listen to her all day – often from multiple machines at a time – don’t go mad and start throwing tinned goods at her smug, complacent screen I do not know.

Please scan your first item.

Please place the item in the bag.

Unexpected item in bagging area.

Please wait for assistance.

Have you swiped your Nectar card?

Please insert cash or select payment type…Please take your change…Please remove your items…Please place the item…Have you swiped your…Please insert…please place…please wait…AAAARGH!!

In The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd mention a particular – and at one time very common – shade of green paint “which is supposed to make you feel comfortable in hospitals, industrious in schools and uneasy in police stations.”  The self-service checkout woman’s voice, clear, soothing and utterly implacable, reminds me of that shade of paint.  Were I George Orwell writing of a figurehead overseeing a dystopian future world, I would not invent Big Brother – far more threatening to have Self-Service Woman as Big Sister watching your every move and asking calmly and quietly, ‘Did you wash your hands? Have you met your productivity targets today? Have you swiped your Nectar card?’

Before this turns into an uncontrollable rant (too late?!), I do have a genuine and serious concern about these machines. I think they’re harmful to society – and not just because they induce rage in otherwise calm and orderly members of the populace like myself.

Think about it; their sole function is to enable supermarkets to serve more customers with fewer staff. I’m far from an anti-capitalist, but this to me is just wrong.

One of the arguments often put forward in favour of the big-brand supermarkets is that they provide employment – where once one bought groceries from a family-run store employing maybe two or three people, now a supermarket comes in and provides jobs for many more. If the supermarkets are now doing away with cashiers, however, how many more jobs are they really creating? Yes, they have shelf-stackers, but they have saved themselves multiple man-hours at the customer-facing end, having just one person to oversee half-a-dozen tills. And the profits flow directly to the big bosses and shareholders, not to the communities their shops claim to serve.

Over and above the economic point, there is a social one; I prefer to go to an actual manned till because I appreciate the human interaction. I like the fact that some of the checkout people at my local supermarkets are starting to recognise me. My parents actually look out for a couple of staff members at their local supermarket and choose their tills when possible because they have built up a rapport with them over the years. The exchange of a few words of greeting can make all the difference when you’re tired, stressed or feeling low – and perhaps you can make a difference to the checkout-girl or –guy’s day. Making eye contact and saying a genuine hello, thank you and goodbye might just make her/him feel more like a human and less like a machine.

If the self-service machines genuinely made the experience quicker, more efficient and altogether more pleasant, I think I’d have a harder time making this argument, but they don’t. I used one the other day (because the shop I was in has removed all staffed checkouts, so I had no choice), and the till next to me was visited by two people who had never used one before. One lady was Scottish and just needed a little human direction (because the naggy voice actually doesn’t give you confidence that you can follow her instructions), which I gave her, the employee being busy with other problems. The other clearly didn’t speak any English and had no clue what to do. The employee was quite short with her (because again, he was distracted by trying to solve other people’s problems), and I felt ashamed of the ‘customer service’ she was receiving from us.

So I end this rant with a request: please vote with your feet and boycott the soulless, inhuman, unhelpful self-service checkouts and allow yourself to be served by a living, breathing human being, capable of nuance, initiative and relationship. Resist the drive towards faceless efficiency and self-serving consumerism. Emerge from your bubble and make contact with another human being; you’ll be doing yourself and your community a favour.

Rant over.

11 Comments On This Topic
  1. Leila Wildsmith
    on Aug 28th at 8:52 am

    My friend once wondered if the loud “approval needed statement” emitted from these machines when purchasing alcohol or other age-restricted items had ever caused a nervous breakdown in the self-service aisle; perhaps is it is not “approval needed” so much as human contact needed.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Aug 28th at 9:14 am

      Ha, that’s brilliant – there’s a short story in that, isn’t there?

  2. luc.
    on Aug 28th at 9:21 am

    oh my, thanks for putting into words I always felt:) I actually just watched the first episode of the latest BBC Sherlock Holmes and I was rolling with laughter when Watson-Martin Freeman had “a row with a self checkout machine”….

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Aug 28th at 9:36 am

      You’re welcome! Ha ha, I must have missed that episode, must watch it again sometime. It’s weird how everyone hates them, but their becoming more and more prominent – I guess the supermarket bosses never actually shop so they don’t have to use them!

  3. Judith Barnett
    on Aug 28th at 10:16 am

    You will possibly think I am copying your parents, but I too make a bee-line for the same checkout ladies if I can. We chat about all kinds of things, and I have even invitied one to our church knitting/crochet club! I cannot bear the self-checkout tills, there’s no way they are faster. In a high-street newsagent, I swiped my pen refil (and chocolate!) too fast for the machine, it had a computerised fit, there were not enough staff to come and sort it out, so I had to wait for the regular checkout queue to diminish. It totally defeated the point of the self-service checkout. Never again!

  4. tim o'brien
    on Aug 28th at 11:23 am

    Self service checkouts do demonstrate how easy a task it is and means u can bypass the slow and useless cashiers I always seem to get!

    • tim o'brien
      on Aug 28th at 11:25 am

      Although the machines in the earlier mentioned newsagent are a total waste of space

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Aug 28th at 11:30 am

      Ah, but wouldn’t it be better for our society to invest in training and developing people than simply bypassing them with machines? 😉

  5. Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo)
    on Aug 28th at 11:45 am

    Daughter has spent summer working part time in a large supermarket. Cases of ‘holiday flu’ along with the well established pay day hangovers, were rife during Olympic fortnight meaning she could work up to 200% extra hours. I’m the worst mathematician in the household but that in itself has got to be money down the drain, right?
    Self-service checkouts (& scan your own shopping) are definitely in part a stop gap for staff shortages, which are disguised with ‘convenience speak’. Oh yes and the voice of convenience is deeply irritating & has a patronising tone, reason enough in itself to be avoided.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Aug 28th at 11:55 am

      “the voice of convenience is deeply irritating” great line! Thanks for stopping by.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.