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Why I hate supermarket self-service checkouts

Waiting at a self-service checkout

Self-service checkouts – they seem to be on an unstoppable rise in supermarkets, banks and other stores. I hate them – am I just a Luddite trying to hold back the tide of progress?

When my mum worked in a grocery shop in the 70s and 80s, the thing she loved most was chatting to the customers – usually prising their life story out of them as she weighed their apples or counted out their change.

One thing I’m pretty sure she never said to them is: ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’!

Why I hate self-service checkouts

I know people who love self-service checkouts, but I’m not one of them. I’m baffled when friends protest that they are quick and easy to use. Whenever I’m in my local supermarket, people are always having to summon help because the machine won’t take their money or their item won’t scan.

And we found that frustration with the machines has led to a third of British shoppers swearing at them.

I personally can’t see how the checkouts save any time at all. And doesn’t it seem odd the idea of having to scan and pack your own food? It’s like going to a restaurant and being invited to cook your own meal (I know there are a few of them around, too!)

It seems that shopping has become less and less personal over the years. From grocery stores to supermarkets, to shopping on the internet and now the expansion of self-service tills, it seems we spend less and less time talking to someone face to face.

That’s why I was so pleased to read that Morrisons is to bring back manned express tills in all its stores.

More personal service

I’m not suggesting that supermarkets should station an equivalent of my mum at every express till in a supermarket – you’d have an interesting time but a long wait to be served! But there must be a happy middle ground between the life story and the self-service checkout.

I was nicely surprised at the weekend when I went to pay for a book, when the woman behind the counter asked if I had read this other book as well, which was similar. For all I know this might have been part of the loathsome new company edict to ‘engage with the public’, but if so it worked. For a few seconds, I felt better about the shop.

Contrast this with my experience in another shop, where customers were urged to use the self-service tills by an assistant who then watched over them while the customer did all the work themselves.

It’s all so different to grocery shopping in America where I was practically told off for attempting to pack my own shopping.

The only good thing about the self-service checkout is that at least they don’t try to sell you half price chocolate or other things you don’t want – well, not yet anyway?

Do you like the convenience of the self-service checkout or would you rather be served by a human being?

Which of these problems do you find using self-service checkouts?

You have to ask for help (24%, 1,048 Votes)

There's always an unexpected item in the bagging area (24%, 1,048 Votes)

Customer does all the work (19%, 836 Votes)

They don't scan items properly (14%, 612 Votes)

You can't use your own bags (9%, 395 Votes)

I don't have any problems. I find them quick and convenient to use (6%, 264 Votes)

Other - tell us in the comments (5%, 222 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,775

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Will says:
24 May 2015

The thing I REALLY HATE about self service check outs is when you go in without any bags to buy a handful of items to CARRY out of the store – heaven forbid someone DOES such a thing – the bloody machine keeps yapping on about how many bags you’re using. It’s just so annoying being asked if I’m using my own bags when I have no intention to USE any bags.

The whole bag nonsense should just be dispensed with entirely. The process is too convoluted. I want to walk up to the machine, start scanning away, press pay, and pay. Job done.

And when you ARE using your own bags, the **** really hits the fan. If your bag is irregularly shaped and keeps shifting around on the scales, the stupid machine keeps thinking there’s an ‘unexpected item’ and you have to keep calling the staff dude over to reset the machine. Every. Single. Time.

CC says:
24 May 2015

I have tried very hard to embrace the self service check out but find that even when purchasing a single item there will be a problem. Either i haven’t placed my carrier bag in the correct place or the item doesn’t scam or I can’t find the correct slot to put change in. The change then doesn’t register and I have to start agin. I also feel that I am slowing other shoppers down and begin to feel very foolish. Once or twice I have actually returned items to the shelf and moved out to another shop to buy the item. With all of my negative experiences I rarely drop into a supermarket to buy just a couple of items I pay a little bit more and shop at the local friendly newsagents.The supermarkets lose my trade and I actually feel quite good about supporting my local retailer.

Our local branch of W H Smith has replaced one of the staff with a self-service machine so the fairly large shop is now run by a single assistant who is rarely available at the pay desk as she is busy re-stocking the shelves. There is a dinger you can ring to summon the assistant but most people just queue up to use the machine so buying a newspaper there is no longer quick and convenient. If you do ring the bell the assistant will come to help but she then does it for you through the single machine interrupting the queue. At least if you do use the machine you don’t have to endure the upselling of a bar of chocolate for a £1.

Firstly I find the survey very biased in the way it is worded.

You either have problems
(with the implication that you don’t like self service) or you have no problems and find them quick and easy to use.

I have encountered problems from time to time but on balance find them quick and easy to use.
Where is the box for that?

Self service tills as an extra option are great.
Forcing people to use them is both bad and short sighted.
B&Q is a prime example of a store which has both a policy of trying to force you to use a self service till and a user agressive till. Instant nagging voice!

The survey also conveniently includes at least one problem you get at manned tills – items which will not scan. This can hold a queue up for ages whilst you wait for someone to answer the flashing light. At least with the self service tills there is always someone available to deal with it.

The personal touch also depends on the store.
When they first started in the UK Lidl and especially Aldi trained and bonused their till staff on how fast they could scan items through. They were not happy if you turned up with an unpriced item to check the price because it ruined their scanning speed. Thankfully they have now realised that this is counter productive, and are much more laid back and friendly. They are still a lot more speedy and efficient than the other supermarkets. It isn’t rocket science to realise that the faster you process an individual customer the more customers you can process and the more money that you make. They seem to have learned that if you can do this whilst still being smiling and chatty then you get customer satisfaction and efficiency.

Finally, a word of praise for M&S. I went in yesterday to buy a single item – a bunch of roses from the display in the entrance. I wandered in looking for a self service till and an assistant pointed me to a free one. I scanned the single item and whilst I was paying she took off the price and put the flowers in a special bag. Now that was fast, efficient and friendly service.

If you look at the products you buy in Aldi you will probably find that the bar codes are on all faces of the packaging. That speeds up checkout throughput no end. Auzgeseichnet!

Paul says:
5 June 2015

I agree fully about the survey bias.
I generally find the self service checkouts useful but do have a few problems.

Smaller queues.
Less pressure to be quick – even in a busy shop you are doing your own thing and there are other checkouts, unlike the old system where the speed at which you finish and release the assistant dictates how long everybody else behind you has to wait.

It is annoying when there is no help when you need it – something that M&S are food at avoiding.
Certain coupons – like the newspaper ones ALWAYS require intervention.

Suggestions for shops:
A “Quiet” button – whereby messages appear on the screen to prompt if there are issues – but otherwise it does not prompt.
Flashing green lights when a checkout is available (Slow – not strobe rate) so it
A “Help Please” button so you can summon help …..connected to a headset/handset for the assistant who is monitoring so they know who requires help – sometimes it is like trying to attract the attention of a waiter, they always seem to be looking the other way or through you unless you put your hand up and wave.

I abhor self service machines! Instead of pondering their convenience, or not, think of all of the jobs that have been lost!
I have often been to my local B&Q to find no cashiers and a queue at the ‘express’ service tills!!
The main beneficiaries are the companies from their reduced wages bills.
Originally they were there as an alternative for those with the odd item who didn’t fancy waiting behind someone doing the weekly shop but they are beginning to out number the manned tills.
If you think they are there for the customer, think again..

A good indication is that my local Waitrose had three or four of these tills for a number of months and then decided to withdraw them again because they caused too many problems! In my experience the M & S ones are excellent but the Sainsbury’s ones drive me mad – they won’t accept my own bags without an assistant to verify them and often don’t want to scan my coupons. I have given up on those but continue to use Asda’s and M & S’s.

west country resident says:
24 May 2015

I can understand that they’re useful if you just want one or two items, but personally I hate them and I won’t use them. Recently I’ve been into several small branches of WHSmith to find there is no alternative – there are no staff. If WHS can’t be bothered to serve me, then I can’t be bothered to shop there; I dump my goods on the counter & walk out. Judging by the other assorted items on the counter, I’m not the only one. There are other newsagents only too happy to take my custom.

Charles Evans says:
24 May 2015

They take away vital jobs. My first job whilst at school was on a till.
People need jobs to experience work to give themselves a place in society. The interaction between the customer and operative is vital. These machines are part of the dde humanising of our lives, I want to say hello to someone and have them respond.

lizh says:
24 May 2015

I will happily use the self service tills when the supermarket offers a reduction on my shopping equal to what it would cost for the checkout operator to serve me!!

GLW says:
24 May 2015

Have used the Tesco self service tills since they were introduced. Ok they have minor issues occasionally but staff are always on hand to help. For me the speed and convenience and avoidance of queuing are big benefits so will continue to use.

Linda Maddock says:
25 May 2015

My complaint about self-service tills is that there is always a member of staff watching over you whilst everything is working perfectly, but as soon as you have a problem that person has disappeared into thin air, and you have to wait ages to find someone to help. It happens so often that I think there must be some way they know the machine is going to go wrong and they go and hide so they don’t have to sort it out!

Val says:
25 May 2015

Despite the queue at the regular checkout it always seems to take longer at the self-service —for all the above reasons.

It depends on which supermarket. Generally, Tesco’s robots are brighter than the Co-op’s (whose machines can’t accept coupons and can’t weigh my empty bag first). They all give problems with booze and other age-restricted products, so I don’t use them if I’m buying wine. I always use a till if one is available anyhow. The biggest problem is products reduced because they’re on their sell-by date – the original barcode isn’t always covered properly so the robot tries charging full price.

Supermarket robots seem to be a British phenomenon – I’ve never encountered any in France or Greece. Interesting that neither Lidl nor Aldi (both German) use them. I wish they would – queues are worst in those two.

AB says:
25 May 2015

Even better than self-service tills is the portable scanner, that allows one to scan the products and pack them into the bag whilst still shopping. A quick scan at the dedicated till asks for payment/coupons/unscanned items when finished and you are on your way out of the store. These dedicated scanner tills are often empty, so shopping is a breeze. In all the time I have used a scanner, I have only been ‘checked’ by an assistant on two occasions – which took no more than 2 minutes to verify my purchases. Full marks for progress!

J Gray says:
25 May 2015

Machines don’t give enough time between scanning and setting item on shelf.

It is doing people out of work and I need the human contact

I’ve never yet found the button to press to get a staff discount for doing the work of a store employee. Until that day arrives, I refuse point blank to use a self service checkout. I noticed a chart once in Sainsbury’s with the daily targets for getting customers to use them – that strengthened my resolve even further. On recent visits I’ve also noticed Asda & Sainsbury’s have both either removed the basket only checkout or (Sainsbury’s are the biggest culprit for this) placing a VERY slow member of staff on the basket only checkout. It won’t work – I’ve dumped my basket & walked out on more than one occasion. Even the staff say they s/s checkouts are more bother than they’re worth & I’ve even stood in the manned checkout queue behind staff members who refuse to use the s/s ones. Why do the supermarkets think they’re bigger than the wishes of their own staff & customers & refuse to listen to us?

Falkenna says:
27 May 2015

There are some in America, Paul, and I came a cropper there too. My sister had a loyalty card (I don’t use them), and having already begun without it, there was no backup key, no cancel,no startover, so I left it in mid-operation for a till. Here, I agree with all the problems, find them all differently confusing, and have occasionally picked out people in the opposite line with similar numbers of items in their basket and in front of them as me, to “race” them – the cashier nearly always wins.

Linda says:
27 May 2015

I find the self-service machines’ mindless voice instructions – endlessly repeated and audible round the store – very annoying, I wonder how staff can stand to listen to it all day. Much as I like computers and gadgets I much prefer dealing with a real person and will usually choose that option even if it means having to queue up.

Angie says:
27 May 2015

They have these at B&Q but they clearly haven’t thought about how difficult it is to scan a 2m length of wood and then balance it vertically in the baggage area whilst trying to scan another unwieldy item. They don’t allow you to perform this unreasonable task at a reasonable pace, so then you are subjected to the machine’s nagging – it’s no wonder “some people swear at them”!