Self-checkouts and other capitalist inconveniences

Posted August 20, 2009

Anyone who’s been to a supermarket within the past couple of years is undoubtedly familiar with the horrible phenomenon of “self-checkout” machines. It seems grocery stores have given up all pretense of caring about their customers; they’ve fired the cashiers and baggers and are forcing you to scan and bag the groceries yourself as a computerized voice commands you every step of the way.

If you’ve used one, you know how extremely inconvenient this is. Because it’s a robot and not a person, you have to go through an extremely specific routine: scan item, place in bag, repeat. Any deviation from this, such as taking a purchase back out of the bag or shifting the items around so the milk doesn’t crush the tortilla chips, will cause the self-checkout station to say perplexing commands at you and possibly force the harried attendant, who has to watch over eight or ten of these things, to come over – after they’re done helping the three other people with the same problem – and make sure you aren’t trying to steal anything before you can scan your next item.

I like to bring my own cloth shopping bags, but the self-checkout machines make this very difficult. And then there’s the matter of payment. A worker can sort bills and coins into a cash register much faster than a customer can insert them, one by one, into a little slot that sometimes rejects them for unknowable reasons. Last time I went to the store it took me about five minutes to buy four items.

It’s striking how fast they’ve been able to essentially eliminate cashiers. The store I go to has been keeping only one or two normal checkout lanes open, even during peak grocery-shopping times, forcing almost everyone to use the self-checkout. It’s not much better with the regular checkout anyway, since they’ve already eliminated baggers.

This is a pretty common phenomenon these days. At a lot of stores, staff have been cut to the point that it’s nearly impossible to ask someone where to find something – instead you’re supposed to use little computers with search functions. Of course, if you enter the wrong name for a product, it won’t be able to tell you where it is. The telephone voice-recognition systems that everyone hates are another example of this trend. This kind of “labor-saving technology” eliminates jobs, but it doesn’t actually save any labor – it makes things more difficult, not less. The difference is that the labor is no longer done by workers, but is foisted onto customers, thus expanding the company’s profit margin while producing inconvenience for everybody else.

In a socialist society, we would presumably put such technology to its proper use – that of making life easier for workers and customers. Meanwhile, the UFCW would make a lot of friends if it mounted a campaign against those awful self-checkouts.


2 responses to “Self-checkouts and other capitalist inconveniences”

  1. Mary Struggler Avatar
    Mary Struggler

    I hate the self check outs and never use them. I don’t care how long the line is at the one open cashier. I’d rather wait in line for a wage earning employee than a darn robot that can’t buy a car.

  2. Stella Avatar

    Hi Nick, I can see where you’re coming from but I disagree. I’m a check-out operator and it is such a meaningless, demoralising job. All day I’m just packing bags and taking money. So I think self-serve check-outs are a good use of technology.. Of course, in the context of capitalism, it saves them money and helps create a reserve army of labour.. But I don’t know, the issue of lack of “customer service” just seems like a petty issue.