/ 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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At my local Tesco, the only change I have seen is that it is now possible to use your own bags without the intervention of a member of staff. The staff know how much some of us hate self-service checkouts and will occasionally open a proper checkout when it’s supposed to be self-service only.

A visit to the supermarket is never a happy experience, but self-service checkouts make the customer experience far worse.

I agree with the comment about DIY self service checkouts as I often find the weight of items is a problem. However with supermarkets I definitely think that if they got taken out then more people would complain than be happy.

As an ex-food retail manager there is always a feeling that the installation of new self-serve checkouts in you store means a huge cut in your personnel budget, which to some extent is true, but I feel it gives more opportunity for the store staff to improve service levels across the whole store.

My personal gripe with self-service tills is the lack of cashback function.

Hi Keith, where do you shop as some supermarkets I’ve been to offer cashback with self-service – Asda for one, though not my local Sainsbury’s.

I like them when I use a credit card for a very small amount, usually because I don’t have any change and don’t want to break into a £20 note. It still feels awkward to use a credit card for a very small amount, and the lack of human interaction prevents any embarrassment.

I’m not a fan I must admit. I find them more trouble than they’re worth, mainly because however firmly I place my items in the bagging area the machine seems adamant in saying I haven’t. And don’t get me started on ‘unknown item in bagging area’! Although my Mum does like them purely for the fact she likes to feel she’s been ID-ed for wine – even if it is by a machine.

artylady says:
8 October 2012

I like them for their speed and I also have a thing about checkout assistants who handle my food after fiddling with their ears, picking their spots, wiping their noses and, if I’m really lucky, sharing their cold with me. This delightful experience doesn’t happen in all supermarkets of course, some are worse than others.
As far as cashback is concerned, my local Morrisons does have machines which offer this facility although the Sainsbury’s which I usually use doesn’t, but this isn’t too much of an issue as they have cash machines just outside the door.
My main gripe is that the machines don’t recognise my own shopping bag so I have to scan everything, put it all in the bagging area and pack it after I’ve paid. Otherwise I find the machines easy to use and much quicker than queuing.

Well said artylady. I suppose the self-service checkouts are throughly cleansed every day. You don’t know whose filthy fingers have been all over the machines; well, you probably do actually!

Artylady, although I dont work with food there should be hygiene policies laid down and there would be. At my place of work, note we dont sell food, we have hygiene wipes or gel because we handle money, and sometimes the odd packaging has a little extra on it left by customers.
As a customer though in dress stores Ive seen snot on clothing, so the assistant has to get that off. Excrement left in display sheds, left there by so called desent customers. Customers sneezing and coughing in your face. Hyperdermic needles left hidden on shelves so replenishment can prick themselves or anyone for that matter, mad world were living in. As for shopping bags its extra weight that shouldnt be on there, and its necessary that they shouldnt be on there. The scales are an important part of stock control, people taking items off the scales before payment takes place are just making their stay there much longer cos the machine wont do anything until that item is back on the scale. So Jennifer its you who holds up the queue

I’m still amazed that half the time I ever try to use them around 25% aren’t working, but then again, what can you expect from Tesco.
Top tip to a winning experience,do not do anything with bags, yours, theirs or anyone else until you’ve finished. Seems the whole bag experience has never been user tested properly so removing that whole scenario seems to help alot.
Although the last time I tried to buy something in B&Q (for 1 item) I needed an assistant, apparently the item I had bought was too lite for the machine.

par ailleurs says:
8 October 2012

Given the fact that they fail to function correctly too often, the cynic in me just thinks that these cursed things are there to save the shop money by employing fewer people. I bet the savings won’t be passed on to either us, the great shopping public, or to the other staff for having to bear the brunt of the complaints on top of their regular job.

I make a point of saying that I’m not criticising the staff when I’m having a whinge about the self-service checkouts. I’ve often been told that the staff hate them too.

My only experience was several years ago in a local Tesco, after trying to use them on 3/4 visits and never succeeding to get through a trolley without having to ring for help I gave up as it was quicker and easier to queue.
Obviously things have changed since then but my local supermarkets dont have self-service checkouts and I rather enjoy the chat with the assistants; we live in the North where friendly conversation is mandatory with anyone nearby !!

At my local Tesco, I can use my Clubcard both to pay and get points at a standard checkout. At the self-service tills I can only use it for points, so I would have to use a different card to pay. So I don’t use them. And yes, I have asked them why and got no explanation.

Sophie Gilbert says:
9 October 2012

I have noticed at my local Tesco that most till assistants regularly omit to credit my Clubcard with bag re-use points when I use my own shopping bag (I don’t let them get away with it, but it is wearing to have to remind them every time), whereas when I use the self-service checkout, which does let me use my own shopping bag, I have only myself to blame if I “forget”.

It depends on the supermarket I find. When I shopped at Morrisons they seemed designed to antagonise, while the Sainsbury’s ones aren’t too bad while the Asda near me has extra large ones so that trolleys can get through (and seems to recognise your own bags).

However, I still find that staff are quicker than I ever am with a basketload, self-service tends to be best for a couple of items.

Morag says:
9 October 2012

My husband and kids love them. They have Asperger’s and much prefer dealing with technology over people. So you could say they are disability friendly. 🙂

I’m not sure that those in wheelchairs would agree, but it’s good that the things help your family.

My favourite thing about self-service checkouts? In some, including Asda and Tesco, they have a coin tray where you can just empty coins into.

I empty my wallet of coppers, 5ps etc when I’m buying my shopping – it will add it all up, and if I’m short I can pay the remainder in my card. I hate small change, and so this is a very good way to get rid of it without any hassle. It’s also a more cost-effective way than those change machines (as they take a cut). I wouldn’t do too much small change though or you might get funny looks…

Never seen one like that Patrick! Sounds like a clever idea, and potentially very welcome, but I wonder if it is reliable and proof against jokers emptying fruit machine tokens, trolly release tokens and foreign coins in? Something to find out more about methinks

I’ve not seen a self-service checkout that will take piles of change ‘up north’. I knew there had to be an advantage of living in London. 🙂

Longley Shopper says:
10 October 2012

I’m tempted to take my 1 gallon pickled onion jar full of 2p’s and try to find one of these things and then pay for my weekly shop in copper. It’d be worth it just to see if the stupid machine can cope and to watch the queue behind me when it fails miserably.

You can probably gather that I hate them.

My sole reason for hating them is that they are a blatant way to make staff redundant.

Fortunately I do most of my shopping at greengrocers, butchers, bakers and cash-only corner shops and I don’t think any of them will be going for these machines too soon.

par ailleurs says:
9 October 2012

I do feel that it’s worth putting in a good word for the middle way here. I always use the self scan option in my local Waitrose (the little laser barcode reader) and it works brilliantly. You can check how much your interim total spend is, it flags up special offers and you can load your baskets in the trolley as you go. Except for the very occasional spot check it’s really straighforward and you absolutely never get behind one of those wonderful folk who first carry on loading their bags in the trolley most meticulously even when the till assistant is ready to take payment and who then always fail to have purse or wallet ready or sometimes to have even made up their mind as to which method of payment they’re going to use!

Dave Midgley says:
9 October 2012

Self-service checkouts are here to stay, and they will become the ‘norm’ in time.
The reason being that these checkouts don’t phone in sick, they don’t need annual holidays, nor do they need to take a lunch break, pay a visit to the toilet or even want a salary…
The result being that they are far cheaper to run and maintain than those pesky unreliable humans!
I hate them with a passion and would rather be served by someone with a pulse, regardless how miserable or uninterested they are.

PeterW says:
9 October 2012

Err – part of the problem is that the self service checkouts do “phone in sick”. For about every second transaction, they fail to work until a harrassed human assistant can be found to over-ride the machine’s mistake and authorise the transaction. That’s certainly true of the DIY store machines, which just can’t cope with very light, very heavy or odd shaped goods. On my last visit I had 4 items; nothing more difficult than pots of paint, but two of them sent the machine haywire for no apparent reason.

Phil says:
10 October 2012

The reason I never use them unless there is no alternative. Working at a supermarket checkout may not be much of a job but it provides an income for tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be on the dole. Self service check-outs might be cheaper for the store to run but will the savings be passed onto the customer? I doubt it.

In reply to Dave Midgely, The machines may not phone in sick, or take holidays but they cost thousands of pounds. These machines however need constant rebooting, and notices stuck on them saying card payment only, too the dismay of customers and staff alike. There is also the case of engineers being called out every so often and how much is that going to cost plus the cost of the replacement part for the machine. I would say the machines are stupid a customer has only one item yet the machine asks the customer to scan another item which confuses the customer so the customer picks up the scanned item and trys to scan again only to set the machine off red light flashing, Put the item back, the machine screams, I usually tell the customer, stupid machine doesnt know you only have one item, that puts a smile on the customers faces. Theres another thing machines dont have a sense of humour.

Chris Gordon says:
9 October 2012

They are a good idea in principle and if you have a small basket of shopping BUT nine times out of 10 they don’t work properly. (M&S and Sainsbury’s mainly)

I guess that someone somewhere has done a cost-benefit analysis for these obnoxious machines, but I don’t understand how it can have shown any benefit:

In M&S (all 4 stores in Sheffield) they now have between 2 and 6 assistants operating the Self Service tills for the customers because most customers appear to refuse point blank to use them. I don’t know whether it’s something peculiar to M&S customers but whenever I am in a manned checkout lane listening to the conversations there are usually a couple of staff trying to persuade customers to use the SS tills instead. Most customers start by simply ignoring the staff and staying in the manned till queue. If the staff get a bit more persistent they usually say “no thanks”. If the assistants get even more persuasive and say (as if to ‘bargain’ with the customers) “I’ll do it all for you if you like” a few customers agree to go across but many still say no. Those who do go across almost all spend the whole time that the transaction is going through complaining about the ethics of M&S making staff redundant by bringing these things in. Some staff try to argue the case, most stay silent and just smile politely and a few staff point out that the number of people who just walk off without paying means that they have to have staff watching them all anyway.

I fail to see what M&S has gained by introducing these and I cannot see how they are saving any money.

B&Q have lost me as a customer for good because they try to force people to use SS tills by closing all the manned ones. I now shop at Wickes who have no SS tills. They’re also a bit cheaper on most lines, so I win and I fail to see how B&Q gain anything. I know I’m not alone, even though I may be in a minority.

The Co-Op near to me had 6 SS tills which were the worst I ever came across for errors. Two were barriered off and marked “out of order” for about 6 months and now they’ve been taken out and there are only 4. They seem to get used quite a bit but customers wanting delivery (quite a large number) often go through the SS till and then have to have their transaction cancellend and taken to a manned till to get the delivery booked. This is the Co-Op’s fault, not that of the machines, but again I fail to see what advantage there has been to installing (and taking out 2 of) these.

I don’t shop anywhere else that has intrioduced them (yet) and long may it stay that way. (Waitrose, where I do almost all my shopping, don’t even have their won scanners here, though I’d give them a go if they did – they just have 20, yes 20, manned checkouts open all the time.

On the rare occasions that I have iused them they’ve been a disatsrer and I regularly point out to staff that as I have a sight disability and therefore a signature card not a PIN card they won’t work for me. I always add that I suspect that they therefore contravene the Disability Discrimination Act – some staff clearly don’t understand and others comment that they also worry about this. I don’t actually know if there is any contravention or not.

So all in all, with the amount of hassle they cause, lost sales, lost customers, the need for many staff to deal with the issues, unreliability, unexpected items, items too light to trigger the scale, bag issues and customers walking off without paying, I really don’t understand how on earth they can save any money or time for anyone and I don’t see how any sane person can see them as a benefit – even if you like them yourself, after waiting ages in a queue caused by a malfunction or some other need to call an assistant, they are slower than manned tills which must surely put off even those who like the concept?

Quite beyond me I’m afraid!

Pjay Gloucester says:
9 October 2012

I refuse to use these blasted machines and yet my wife loves them. She likes to make sure that the correct price is charged. Whenever on the rare occasions that I go with her, I get p……. off when I can’t pack our own bags until after the goods have been paid for. What a stupid idea.

When I went to the local B&Q store in the evening, only the blasted SS tills were open. When the assistant offered to scan my 2 items when I said I can’t work the blasted machine, it took him more than 5 minutes to get the job done because the scanner could not or would not read the code, neither would it read the discount card.

According to the poll so far, the self-service checkouts are more popular than last time we discussed them. I still find it surprising that The Grocer magazine claims that 83% of their mystery shoppers had ‘no problem whatsoever’ with these checkouts. I wonder if The Grocer thinks we all enjoy shopping, think supermarkets are fantastic and always give us good value for money. 🙂

I suspect the mystery shoppers employed by The Grocer trade paper have a tendency to favour things that support the grocery trade; it’s their bread and butter after all.

Looks as if the tide has turned during teh last 24 hours or so Wavechange!

Although, is it me, or have the questions been altered slightly since it started?

That’s good news, Dave. There was a fourth choice that might have annoyed those who run the staffed checkouts.

Hi all, sorry I was going to mention – we’ve tweaked the poll as there were two ‘yes’ options, which were skewing the results. We’ve combined both and put all ‘Yes’ votes into the same pot, so nothing was lost.

We’ve learnt a lot in the past two years since we first did the poll, and looking back it was a little odd to have two ‘Yes’s’. When you added it up there were 62% who didn’t like self-service checkouts – this does still appear to have dropped.