Long term impact of using self-checkout tills!

Bosco Santimano – Founder/Executive Director

This week Bosco Santimano founder and executive director of social enterprise You Can Cook, shares his thoughts on humans battling with the onslaught of machines in our day to day lives; this week its self-checkout tills.

It’s been a couple of decades since self-checkout machines really took off on these islands. Our two big supermarkets in Peebles have installed them to ease queues and provide a quick and efficient way to shop. I have seen people refusing to use them and some actually bewildered by them and some of course yelling at these machines! Well! It’s the voice activation that drives people nuts; “unexpected item in the bagging area” the dreaded trigger that I have seen provoking normal people into a rage. Staff politely come to the rescue of these stranded shoppers and help ease the frustration by diffusing the volatile situation just like bomb disposal experts.

So! What’s the big fuss you may ask about technology that is supposedly helping us in our shopping experience? Well! Apart from many people who swear by these check-out tills there are many who would prefer to see them gone for good and below are a number of reasons why.

The big benefit to retailers is substantial reduced labour costs. Retailers are all for hiring us as unpaid staff with no legal responsibility to pay taxes, employer national insurance and pension contributions, by doing the job of staff. One member of staff can often run six checkout tills with the work of the cashier now done by us the customer! One of the arguments for self-checkout tills is the efficiency and speed with which shopping can be done but anyone who has used a till will know that it’s not all easy and simple to use. Of course there are some who prefer these counters as they have maybe a single item or a few and in these scenarios it’s well worth using them if staff are busy. Plus a study done in 2002 showed people with disabilities where adversely impacted by the self-checkout tills as most of them are not designed keeping accessibility in mind.

Customers have complained about the repeated sounds of a robot coming out of these tills and this promoted Tesco to replace the robotic voice with more human sounding voices. Being more complex, self-check-out tills are prone to failure on a regular basis. For example, they use scales to weigh goods in the bagging area, and, if the scale fails, the machine does not work. Also, in a manned checkout lane, any simple problems like lack of receipt paper would be immediately fixed by the operator, while self-checkouts may not be fixed for quite some time. This lack of reliability can be compensated for by having excess lanes available or enough staff on hand to perform immediate maintenance.

Retailers are getting massive tax breaks and subsidies from the government in many cases for providing jobs locally but unfortunately jobs are being lost to machines instead. All profits are diverted to shareholders who along with the retailers often avoid tax legally by investing in tax havens. This has been investigated over the years by journalists covering tax avoidance schemes.

Please remember, the more we use checkout tills, the more justification for job losses and less taxes collected to pay for vital public services. Ultimately we end up working for corporations without realising we are doing a great disservice to staff who as part of their role provide a much needed community service.

Published in The Peeblesshire News on 6th March 2020.