/ Shopping

Have we come round to self-service checkouts?

In the past, self-service checkouts have attracted strong feelings from both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps. Two years ago, the majority of you told us you avoided them like the plague, but the tables have started to turn…

In July 2010 we put up a poll about self-service checkouts and over 1,000 of you responded. Six in ten said you hated self-service checkouts at supermarkets, while a third said you liked them, finding them ‘speedy and convenient’.

However, a recent test by The Grocer found that 83% of their mystery shoppers had ‘no problem whatsoever’ using self-service tills at Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco supermarkets.

The great self-service checkout debate

In past Convos, we’ve seen frustrated commenters and evangelical converts of self-service tills. For example, Martin Stride was put off self-service checkouts forever:

‘I hate them with a passion, more so in the DIY store I frequent. I object to having to struggle with awkward items to the checkout and scan them. If they want my money the least they can do is take it off me personally – not some robotic, annoying computer voice.’

On the other hand, Craig Brown said they were a great time-saver:

‘I find these machines fantastic. Sure, they can be a bit glitchy and it’s a pain when you’re buying items such as alcohol, but overall I think they are a good thing. When I pop down to my local Sainsbury’s I can now pop in and out in a few minutes rather than having to queue for ages just to buy some milk!’

So The Grocer would have us believe that the tides have changed, and we’re turning into a nation of self-service checkout converts. And I have to admit, I find myself turning to them more often than not when I have a small basket of shopping, simply due to the shorter queuing time.

Swings and roundabouts

Yet I still have my frustrations with self-service! As a former checkout-worker, I’m fairly comfortable with the technology. But I find it frustrating that there are still a few occasions where I need help from an assistant. If I want to buy paracetamol, alcohol, anything sharp, anything above a 12 certificate or use a voucher – I need an assistant to approve the purchase. And of course, we’ve all had the ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ warning far too many times.

I fully understand the need to keep a close eye on restricted products, so I don’t blame the checkouts for this. But I often find I’m waiting an unreasonable amount of time as one lone assistant runs themselves ragged trying to approve endless warnings from 20 checkouts. In fact, general secretary of shopworkers union Usdaw, John Hannett said:

‘Frustrated shoppers often take out their anger on the nearest shopworker. Unfortunately, self-service checkouts have become another flashpoint that can lead to shopworkers being abused, threatened and even physically assaulted.’

So, two years on from our original poll, I’m going to run a similar poll again to see if you’ve really changed your minds about self-service checkouts. Have you found that they’re improving over time? Or do you still avoid them at all times?

Do you hate supermarket self-service checkouts?

Yes, I don't like using them (63%, 1,753 Votes)

No, they're speedy and convenient. (32%, 880 Votes)

I don't know, I've never used one. (5%, 131 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,767

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isabelle egan says:
9 October 2012

What people are seeing is the disappearance of a job that suits many people who have part time jobs. The supermarkets love this self-checkout because it means that YOU are doing the drone work that they paid someone else to do.
Is this seriously an improvement? Right now, there’s a double exit, with manned checkouts and self-checkouts. If self checkouts become the ONLY checkout, there will be even bigger queues than exist now, with no comeback on the shop, just hollering at slow customers who can’t do it quickly…
My life is worth more than being a supermarket checkout queen. I like service. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water…

Pjay Gloucester says:
10 October 2012

I could not agree more. Well said.

I am surprised the German store Aldi have not introduced SS Checkouts.There your shopping runs past the scanning assistant at high speed and the conveyor virtually propels it into the trolley with no time to sort, pack and organise the contents. If you hold up the line and don’t have your money ready immediately the staff shout at you. It’s in the price I suppose.

In my local supermarket – The wheeled shopping basket is banned – so I couldn’t use SS anyway. I will not shop several times a week just so the supermarket can save more money by forcing me to do their job for them. Sadly the local shops are far too small to carry all the goods I want to buy. I certainly only want to waste time shopping once a week – not wandering around all day to collect all I need.

Carol Draper says:
10 October 2012

With the terrible effect of so much unemployment on the economy and on people, why are we cutting down on yet more jobs?

Carol, its the fat cats of the big businessess. Barclays say no more

Self service checkouts are great for myself and fellow bagits (yes, I just made that word up…), who often struggle when bagging items. This way I can take my own time without worrying about being judged by the checkout worker!

Only downside is the unfortunate loss of jobs. And the oversensitive scales. And maybe that time it said I had to provide ID for spoons.

Tpoots believe me you are judged

we use them all the time – its just quicker than using the main checkouts.
at tesco the bagging area is big enough for our main shop.
at morrisons – which we prefer – the bagging area will hold only a dozen items or so.

I’m retired and (apart from having settled comfortably into the ranks of the grumpy old g*ts) have the luxury of being able to take time over most things including shopping.
I refuse to use self-service checkouts partly, if I’m honest, because I don’t like being dictated to by a machine but mostly because I object to doing what for all my life has been the work of the supermarket staff.
At least it won’t be my fault when supermarkets start offering shoppers the chance to stack the shelves as well !

The benefit to the shopper of self-service checkouts is that it is only necessary to handle each item once: pick up from the basket, scan and put immediately into a carrier bag. With the staff operated checkout, the shopper has to handle each item twice: (1) pick up from the basket and place on the conveyor and (2) pick up after scanning and place in the carrier bag. All the shop assistant has to do is to scan items as quickly as possible; it’s the shopper that does all the work.
Another advantage of the self-service machine is that it counts small change and shows a running total of the balance remaining, so it is convenient to off-load small change. By contrast, when a shop assistant is waiting to be given money it is tempting to whip out a note and be given change, thus increasing the weight of coins carried around in the pocket.
Thirdly, at the self-service checkout I don’t mind using a credit/debit card for payment, even for small amounts. I feel that a shop assistant at a standard checkout might frown on me for offering a credit card for an amount less that £10. Recently, I’ve decided to make more use of my payment cards to avoid handling money, as I’ve read that notes and coins are often contaminated by other people’s faeces.
Finally, I use self-service checkouts because I can be rude to the robotic voice without causing offence. If asked for a Clubcard I often reply “You STUPID woman, I’ve told you before I haven’t got a Clubcard!”. It’s one way of venting anger at Clubcard time-wasting.

Peter, you presume too much, where I work we would gadly accept a card payment no matter how small the amount Ive taken payment for less than a £1 and there is no charge. We also do trolly to trolly so I would take your items out of your trolly scan them then put them back into the empty trolly beside me, Ive even bagged peoples shopping for them. Not on my shift does the shopper do everything, big burly men have even watched me struggle with heavy items. On the other side of the till assistants have asked me do I need help with bagging, when Ive said yes please they do it for me. How rediculous people look when they shout and scream at a machine. People will still think they are plonkers!

I’ve just found this, not good reading for those in favour of self service checkouts.


You don’t need to click on the link if the DM offends, the link says it all really.

Cameron says:
14 December 2012

I use them sometimes and I don’t have a problem with them. However, there are two things generally missing from this debate:

1. It clearly reduces the number of staff needing to man checkouts (thats why the supermarkets have them), so does it mean more jobs dissapearing?

2. Less staff in supermarkets means a greater ability to undercut small shops – will more small shops close?

Lucy says:
8 July 2014

As someone who operates the self scan checkouts, the reputation these machines have is unfair. I spend my entire shift biting my tongue as customers regularly s**g off the machines to me and rant about how much they hate them. If you hate them so much, please, dont use them. It appears that many customers who use the self scan machines, do not have an understanding of how they work.

The main issues:

1. Scanning an item and then messing around trying to get it in the bag in the ‘right’ way before placing it in the ‘bagging area’ (this is a SCALE, it weighs items so it can check that the item you have scanned is the one you have placed in the bagging area. To prevent for example scanning a 60p chocolate bar and placing a TV in the bagging area).

It is HIGHLY ADVISABLE to scan all items through and pack after the shop however many customers are able to scan and pack without an issue as long as each item is placed in the bag and left alone, not constantly picked up, put back down or shuffled around. If this is your requirement, go through a manned checkout where you can mess around with your items to your hearts content, but dont expect the machine to understand whats happening when it has a scan code that gives it a weight to match up, and then this weight is coming on, going off etc etc.

2. Taking a large trolley load through a self scan machine with a small bagging area. This makes absolutely no sense to me and will always take far longer than going through a manned checkout. So please no comments about how it is supposed to be quicker.

3. Unexpected item in bagging area. This happens when: customers take too long to place the item in the bagging area, customers scan an item incorrectly, or when an items weight has been entered into the system incorrectly causing the machine to recognise the weight as an error. 90% of the time if you arent messing around with the items in the bagging area, this doesnt happen. It often is abused by people stealing from supermarkets as self scan attendants are so used to having to quickly clear the prompt without thoroughly checking the bagging area due to irate customers. In reality if the machine says unexpected item, 7 times out of 10 it is correct, something has been entered incorrectly. However due to how irate customers get, although it would be easy to explain what has happened to cause the machine to respond in this way, this is not done as customers then become defensive and irritable.

4. People who complain about approval needed. Please note. The machine does not have the ability to look at you and judge your age. Clearly approval will be required for absolutely all age restricted items on self scan checkouts. If this offends you or irritates you that you are being held up, please feel free to go to a manned checkout. It is essential for public safety that this procedure is followed. NB: Tesco self scan checkouts do not request approval for the purchase of paracetamol. This is illegal due to both age and quantity restrictions and Watchdog are investigating.

5. When using self scan checkouts the public appear to lose the ability to either hear or read. The machine gives instructions clearly for most eventualities if you would just look up and see what the message on screen says.

6. Swiping a baguette in front of the scanner as if it were a light saber, will not result in the barcode being read, so throwing said baguette at the screen is unnecessary.

7. Whistling self scan attendants as if they were dogs is not acceptable.

8. Neither is grabbing them physically.

9. If a self scan attendant is with another customer and you can see them assisting the other customer, please dont persist in shouting. One at a time. There is a traffic light system on the self scan machines and the attendant will attend asap.

10. The assumptions made by the general public about supermarket workers to be frank are disgusting and discriminatory. My friend with 2 degrees who is working on her masters and working part time has been told she must be stupid as she is working in a supermarket. This is not an isolated incident. The people who do work there full-time do a sterling job in my opinion to remain upbeat and customer orientated on the majority of occasions despite having the same conversation upwards of 300 times per shift and being subject to a complete lack of respect.

11. Men. If you come across an attractive female on your checkout, please. Just because you’ve got her trapped doesnt mean its a free pass. Try to show some respect. Also frequent comments about how her hair looks better…how old she looks… flabbergasted. Would never dream of having that conversation with a random shopworker who has to put up with whatever comments you choose to make, when actually, her skin is crawling.

12. Please for everyones information: If the lights above the window where you scan the items is RED, this means the scanner is OFF. GREEN for GO, RED for STOP.

I also work on the manned checkouts. I do not mind taking my time scanning the items as I believe customer service is of the upmost importance. I will gladly pack for customers and regularly do so. I try to ensure all customers are made aware of any promotions they may have missed and particularly take my time ensuring the elderly customers of which we have a lot, are not flustered and are well looked after. HOWEVER. I accept this is not always the experience with checkout attendants. One point of interest I will mention is that manned checkout workers are targeted on the number of items they scan per minute, and can lose their job if this is consistently too low. The target in one supermarket is 22 items per minute. This is a fairly fast pace. For me as I work part time to fund my postgraduate degree, this is not an issue. For full time workers this may be more important.

Anyway. Just some thoughts.

Lucy – I am disappointed that a graduate should make such one-sided comments.

I would love to have the option to use manned checkouts if I have a trolley load, but the fact is that my local Tesco store closes every one of them later in the evening. Not one of the self-scanning machines has a decent sized bagging area.

When I encounter a problem and have to wait for assistance, the assistant often has exactly the same problem, so either we are both incompetent or there is a problem with the machine.

If the machines cannot cope with people packing their bags while scanning goods, commonsense dictates that there should be a prominent notice to say that everything should be scanned first. I have not seen such notices. The software should be designed to cope with how customers are likely to use the checkouts. When I started to use these machines I was unable to use my own bags without help from the assistant. This issue was addressed within a year of the introduction of the machines but should have been predicted by the designers.

You do not have to accept abuse from customers. Your employer should have explained the procedure for reporting this and how the problem can often be avoided by treating customers respectfully and showing sympathy.

Please accept that there are genuine problems with these confounded machines.

Lucy, Don’t forget you’ve probably been trained on how to how these machines, us members of the pubic haven’t, so is it really fair to expect us to be able to use them in the manner the designers have decided they should be used rather than the manner that normal people would actually use them.

And I guess you don’t work for Tesco, I tried scanning a coconut yesterday and it keep telling me that item has been withdrawn, when a more helpful message would have been scan the bar code and yes there was a very small bar code on it but why then allow me to pick fruit, exotic fruit coconut if I’m not supposed to.

These machines have been so poorly coded I can get them to go wrong on just one item.

Even the poor assistant admitted they have several problems.

Assistants in Tesco have frequently told me that they hate the machines and the fact that they go wrong so often. On a couple of occasions there have been so many problems that the assistant has completed the scanning for me. It is very annoying having to wait until the one assistant has sorted out problems at other self-scanning machines.

On one occasion I had multiples of one item and the assistant jumped in before I’d even got to the machine and scanned them for me by doing something ( certainly not scanning them individually). I asked oh that’s a neat trick can you show me how its done, the reply, sorry that facility isn’t available to customers. 🙁

I wonder why more supermarkets haven’t taken up Waitrose’s personal scanners that allow you to scan each item as you shop and simply pay the total at the checkout. Has it been abused? It seems a much more efficient way for both store and shopper.
Having checkout operators targetted for scanning speed perhaps accounts for the race I sometimes have to fill my bags before the “out” area overflows; I just thought it was more entertaining for the operator. Perhaps customers would be banned if they didn’t load their bags sufficiently quickly?

Tesco have these in some of their larger stores. I have been waiting for someone to say whether they are any good or not before having a play with one. I’m not to keen on having someone going through my shopping bags in a ‘random’ check, as if I had been suspected of shoplifting.

At least you could put goods that refuse to scan back on the shelves, but you would still need to have restricted items checked by a human being to establish you are over 18.

Rex Mutt says:
27 October 2014

Does anyone know the legal stand point when a self serve machine at the supermarket repeatedly refuses to take my banknote in payment……do I still have to ‘force’ payment?

It is possible that the note is either damaged our counterfeit. An attendant will inspect it for you.

fed up shopper says:
5 November 2014

First time I ever used one it took my £20 but then did not acknowledge that the money had gone in. I found myself being eyed up and down by the manager who decided to give me my money back. So I don’t trust them for a very good reason.