BEST OF 2023: If self-checkouts are on their way out, it's time to embrace incidental human interaction

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Woolworths Dickson self service checkout

Could self-serve checkouts soon go the way of the dodo? Photo: David Murtagh.

Year in Review: Region is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2023. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking this year. Today, Zoya Patel shares her thoughts on self-serve checkouts.

When self-service checkouts were first introduced to supermarkets and department stores, I resisted them.

My objections were primarily from an industrial rights and job security perspective – where would the jobs of cashiers go? If we keep reducing service and retail jobs, what will happen to the workforce that relies on them? I had a particular interest because my mum worked as a supermarket cashier for our early years in Australia, and I know what a godsend that job was.

But over time, much like how we’ve adapted to the gig economy and other workforce disruptions, I grew accustomed to the self-checkout, and indeed, I even started preferring it.

Now, a UK supermarket chain is removing self-checkouts for a better customer experience, and it’s made me think about how I would feel if Coles and Woollies suddenly made the same decision.

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My love of the self-checkout is purely down to efficiency. I like being able to scan my own items, pay, and get out of there without further interactions – especially if I’m shopping at Dickson Woollies, where every extra second spent in store feels like sensory overload. I’m not big on chit-chat; getting in and out without talking to someone appeals to me.

However, my local shops are small and don’t have self-checkouts, and I probably stop in two or three times a week to grab essentials as we run out. The other day, while conversing with the cashier, I realised that my anti-social love of self-checkouts also serves as a way to isolate myself from the community around me.

This particular cashier was a ray of sunshine. She seems to remember every single customer, always has something nice to say and is cheerful in a way that actually baffles me (how does she do it? I can barely stay cheerful for more than one day at a time). We chatted away while she scanned my groceries, and I left feeling surprisingly light and happy.

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Of course, I thought to myself, human contact is actually a good thing the majority of the time and the more we automate and make things contactless, the less incidental human connection we have. I didn’t realise it was missing until I had a healthy dose of inconsequential conversation and remembered how nice it is to interact for no reason.

There are days when I walk into that shop hoping that the cashier will process my items with the bare minimum conversation and days when the last thing I want to do is to make polite chit-chat when I’m actually stressed or feeling rushed by other things I need to be doing or thinking about. But the reality is that engaging with another person is always going to be more positive and meaningful than tapping on another screen, regardless of the efficiency.

Perhaps, in this case, and in other instances of digital disruption, we have to go backward to find our way forward.

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Worse than self-checkouts are the restaurants and cafes that expect you to send your order directly to the kitchen, as they’re not willing to have staff come to see you so that you can ask appropriate questions before ordering. Turning amiable restaurants into impersonal food delivery services seems pretty stupid to me. I’d rather go somewhere that’s a bit more friendly and open to customers’ questions or special requests.

I mostly head to the self-checkouts, as that’s the easiest.

Most irritating is a Bunnings habit of not only closing self check out but all regular checkouts at the same time. Forces customers to use returns/click and collect counter or tool counter and guess which will be quicker. Often a long wait while preceding customers, especially returns (and the telephone ones) are processed.

I’m still hopeful that the technology will eventually make it so that you can literally just rock up to the checkout with your trolley or basket and the ‘system’ will be capable of detecting every item you picked from the shelves, automatically, without any human scanning needed. That’s my idea of grocery shopping bliss. Enter-grab-grab-grab-checkout (no hand-scanning needed) -bag-pay-done.

I wouldn’t trust the system’s accuracy or honesty. I’ve too often been overcharged at a checkout, so would rather see items go through. Very annoying to get home and find out that you’ve been ripped off and it’s then harder to address.

I hope they stay, not everyone wants to talk to a person, nor do I like the way they pack my groceries. A mix of staffed and self checkout should be the solution.

Agree totally. As customers we should be able to choose our shopping experience, not be forced to conform to the store’s wishes. Sometimes you feel like a chat, other times not.

Geoff Piddington10:24 pm 07 Dec 23

If no checkout operator staff rostered – I leave. The worst offender is KMART and I haven’t shoped there since they removed the checkout operators.

Sir Q. Mozart-Sprong6:54 pm 07 Dec 23

I always head for the self-checkouts in order to avoid being interrogated by the checkout operator, who invariably insists on asking either (a) “How ya going?” or (b) “How’s your day been?” or occasionally even (c) “Any plans for the rest of the day?”. In the case of (a) or (b), I am sometimes tempted to tell the truth. In the case of (c), it’s none of their damn business.
What’s wrong with just saying “Hello!” or “G’ day!” and leaving it at that?

We try to find a served checkout as we want the human service and want to keep these types of jobs open for humans. We would go to a supermarket that phased these out if it became available.

HiddenDragon6:53 pm 02 Dec 23

“Now, a UK supermarket chain is removing self-checkouts for a better customer experience, and it’s made me think about how I would feel if Coles and Woollies suddenly made the same decision.”

The difference between UK and Australian labour costs probably means that the big Australian chains will not be following suit, and for those of us who prefer the self serve checkouts, quirky software – most particularly the almost Stasi-level paranoia in one big chain – makes interaction with another person fairly likely.

Some journalism with something sensible, life affirming, and anti-modern about it. I could cry.

Lefty Boomer11:53 am 30 Nov 23

There is a meme out there asking Woolies when their staff Xmas party is on so that self-checkout customers can attend.

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