Self-service tills are all the rage, but that hasn’t stopped one customer-focused retailer axing them from all but two of its stores. 

Forward thinking or foolhardy?  

The jury’s out at the moment, but it’s certainly got retail bigwigs talking. 

Self-checkouts were championed as a breakthrough in customer service and convenience. So why buck the trend by getting rid of them? 

Maybe it’s not as daft as it sounds. 

The shortcomings of self-service checkouts

We were promised that do-it-yourself tills would consign long queues to history and avoid checkout frustration. Tell that to a pensioner buying their favourite tipple, only to be told by a screen that someone’s got to check they’re old enough to enjoy their wee dram. 

And sticking with alcohol, woe betide anyone at a self-checkout who’s got a hangover and needs a packet of paracetamol sharpish. That headache just got a lot worse! 

Lost jobs and lost sales

Retailers were quick to defend the accusation that self-checkouts would lead to job losses. They argued that staff could be re-deployed to more meaningful tasks. And after all, people would still have the option of checking out a staffed till. 

That might be the case, but far too often, and particularly in fast-moving city centre supermarkets, there’s rarely a cashier to be seen. So it’s self-service or wait, not necessarily in a queue, but just for someone to take their place at a checkout. 

Elderly shoppers struggle more than most with the self-checkout concept. Instead of having to find an image of a banana or work out which variety of apple they’ve bought on a touch screen, most would prefer a welcoming smile at a checkout, even if it means a little wait. And why not? 

In fact, jobs have been lost as a result of the introduction of self-service tills. Job search engine Adzuna reported that seasonal vacancies fell by 26% last December vs 2020. Retailers’ bottom lines have been hit too due to people who prefer to pocket rather than pay at a non-staffed checkout.  

Some have argued that people are more inclined to steal at a self-service till because there’s no human interaction. In the perpetrators’ minds, they’re not actually harming a person, so it doesn’t really matter. Fifteen per cent of people admit purposefully stealing from self-service checkout and that doesn’t include the accidental thefts from busy and tired shoppers. 

The niche role of self-service checkouts

No-one could argue that if you’re in a rush, with a couple of low-value items, self-service tills come into their own. Quick, convenient and usually reliable – they are a shopper’s dream! 

The scenario of having a basket or trolley crammed full of items is a different story. Before you even get to checkout, you’re debating which is the best and quickest option. Staffed or self-service. And once you commit, there’s no going back! 

It will be interesting to see in a few years’ time whether self-checkouts are embraced by everyone, or whether the voice of the traditional shopper who values a chat at the checkout will still be heard. 

Of course, retailers are right to embrace automation, and no-one wants to stand in the way of meaningful progress, but there is a human (and retailer) cost to all of this. 

As with most big retail decisions, people power will dictate the way it goes. Customer feedback may have led to one major retailer ditching self-service tills, whether others follow remains to be seen.