To self-checkout or not to self-checkout? Readers respond to Farhad Manjoo's "Welcome to the Machine?"

By Salon Staff

Published September 22, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

I had to laugh at Home Depot's claims that they haven't let anyone go because of the automated checkout systems they've installed in their stores. Of course they haven't let anyone go -- they just reduce the (already part-time) employees' hours until they quit, then they don't replace them. Anyone who's ever tried to get help at a Home Depot store knows that you're more likely to get run over by an employee on a forklift than find one to help you, and usually the people in the orange aprons that you can find don't know anything about the product you are interested in because they "don't work in that department." They're happy to page for someone to come over and help you before scurrying off to another aisle or the employee lunchroom, though.

I say this not as a former Home Depot employee but as a sales rep and former vendor to Home Depot who was continuously barraged with questions by frustrated customers looking for help. The store managers are under pressure to increase profits if they want to make their goals and earn their (substantial) incomes and bonuses. The easiest way to do that is to reduce payroll. They have no real way of increasing in-store sales because they have no control over the product mix in their stores or the advertising that brings people into them. They won't put those former cashiers back out on the floor to help customers or to restock empty shelves. That would eliminate all the savings that these new technological gizmos are creating! They figure the customers can find their own products if they wander around the store long enough. As for empty shelves: The vendors are forced to keep them clean and stocked if they want to keep their sales from sliding and the regional and corporate buyers from dumping their product line for an all-too-willing competitor.

As for ease of use by the public: Just imagine yourself walking up to a self-serve checkout station at Home Depot with a bag of 25 wood screws, some washers, nuts, bolts, a couple of PVC fittings to repair your sprinklers, a mix of sprinkler riser bodies with a mix of loose heads (parkway, quarter-circle, half-circle, three-quarter-circle and full-circle), some stepping stones for your garden, a roll of galvanized baling wire, 25 feet of chain that you cut (yourself) in the hardware aisle, some heating duct and a bunch of lumber. Everything's loose (meaning not in a retail package). The only things that are likely to have a bar code for you to scan are the roll of baling wire, the duct and hopefully the sprinkler bodies/heads and the lumber.

Normally the cashier would pull out a notebook with laminated pages and try to look the bulk stuff up, then ring it up manually. If it's supposed to have a bar code, but it doesn't, or if the bar code doesn't register because it's damaged, missing or it's not in the computer, who's going to page someone in the department to ask for a price check? If I'm "Joe Construction" and I know exactly what I'm buying, I could probably use the laminated book to look SKU numbers up myself, but if not and I'm not able to tell 1/2-inch PVC fittings vs. 5/8-inch or 3/4-inch PVC fittings, and if I can't tell the different sizes (based on diameter and thread count) of wood screws apart I might just be tempted to leave all that shit sitting on my cart at the self-check counter and go over to Lowe's or Orchard Supply where I can actually get service.

What a crock!

-- Pete Holman

Speaking for myself, my wife, and virtually every acquaintance in my life, I hate the automated checkout machines they've slapped in all the grocery stores. I'm nowhere near as competent at scanning a grocery item as a cashier, I don't have the numeric codes for produce memorized, and I really don't appreciate having the whole system shut down and accuse me of stealing every time the weight shifts slightly in my bag. Our lives have become impersonal enough without removing all the daily niceties such as a brief conversation with a grocery clerk. My life isn't more convenient, customer service isn't any better, and my groceries aren't any cheaper.

I'm a graduate student in computer science, and I suppose that I ought to embrace these forms of automation enthusiastically. Instead, I find myself thinking more and more that the Luddites may have had a good idea after all. The only things we need in life are food, shelter and companionship -- maybe it's time for us to remember that everything beyond that, however attached to it we may be, is on some level just useless bullshit.

-- Mark Meiss

Well, it's not so much that I love ATMs, self-checkout, automated movie ticket machines, etc. It's just that the quality of service in most banking and retail establishments is so bad these days that I'd rather deal with a machine than some uncaring, barely functional boob.

I'm only 45, but I remember when you could go into any store, bank or restaurant and actually get decent service from people who knew what they were doing and understood that their livelihood was connected to the quality of the job they did. There's not enough room here to enumerate the times I've gone into a store, had my purchases tallied and left with nothing more than a forced and insincere "thanks" (maybe) from a clerk who couldn't be less interested in retaining my business. Between their personal phone calls (often on their personal cellphones), conversations between clerks, and general lack of interest in their jobs, these drones couldn't care less about my loyalty to their establishment.

Give me a machine any time. At least I don't feel compelled to thank it for what I'm not getting.

All this doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions, and I'm the first to compliment and thank people (and tip well) for good service. It's just that I don't have to as often as I'd like. It seems that retailers don't pay much attention to training their staff, beyond proficiency with the computerized cash registers, and no one seems to be supervising anyone anymore.

I also understand that customer service positions don't pay well and often don't come with benefits. That's why I got out of retail years ago. But I did learn a lot about working with the public and how much of a difference being genuinely nice makes. And I always had a supervisor call me on the carpet when I wasn't giving customers good service.

Just venting, I guess, but it's a complicated problem.

-- Karen Paolini

I doubt very much that automation technology can ever replace the cashier entirely. After spending many long, impatient minutes waiting at the local Home Depot for clumsy shoppers to figure out how to scan their merchandise, I hate self-checkout machines. A cashier will always be better at his or her job than the average Joe, not to mention those with sensory or physical impairments.

On the other side of the coin, as an engineer and former builder of robots, I know firsthand how fragile and maintenance-intensive they can be. Every machine in every store (which may or may not displace a single worker) sustains a large community of people -- designers, manufacturing engineers, overhead personnel (marketing, sales, executive), transportation workers, installation contractors, and maintenance/repair personnel, to name just a few. This is technology for technology's sake -- and as such it spurs growth and helps sectors of the tech economy, whose employees in turn can spend more at the grocery store.

Get smart. Buy NCR stock if you think the technology is destined to permeate retail. And if you're a cashier, do your job with warmth and efficiency, and I think your customers will choose to wait for you rather than watch Billy Sue and Jethro bicker over how many bottles of Boone's they can afford at the self-checkout.

-- Alex Millie

Here are my incentives not to use automated checkout machines and to "pay inside": Someone else can heft the groceries into bags; someone else can paw over the items trying to find the barcode stripes; someone else can call the supervisor when the machine doesn't register the correct price; someone else can take the risk of forgetting to "desensitize" an item and setting off the shoplifting detector; someone else can fumble with the credit card, find the right place on the faintly printed receipt to sign, and put it in front of me facing the right direction.

Here are my incentives to use automated checkout machines and to "pay outside": I avoid having to wait in lines with other peevish customers and their whining, bratty kids; I limit my exposure to screeching announcements and horrible music broadcast over the store's P.A. system; I won't leave the "convenience mini-mart" reeking of deep-fry grease and ersatz strawberry air "freshener"; and I don't have to interact with that commonly indifferent, often surly, frequently sarcastic or annoying Someone Else.

I vote for the machines.

-- Robert Barth

Future anthropologists will remark on our era as the one in which "Humans began to develop robotic machines with the potential to eliminate most drudgery from daily life while simultaneously allowing unfettered and unchecked procreation to jam Earth's limited space and resources with hungry bodies. The eventual result was not a life of ease for a stable, manageable population but rather an unhappy scenario of relatively small, pampered oligarchies bobbing in a teeming, world-covering sea of unemployed, unskilled, overpopulated misery."

-- Jim Houghton

I'm a 41-year-old technologist. I've deployed global networks of thousands of nodes. I've solved creative, technological and people problems for two decades. I used to get paid for that.

I now work in a tiny computer store for $8.75 an hour. It's the only job I could get after being laid off my IT director job two years ago. My rent takes up two-thirds of my pay. I can't afford shoes.

Yet I write a technology column for the local newspaper. I do it for clippings. Seems that doesn't pay, either.

Don't tell me about jobs at the creative, problem-solving level unless you've got one for me. It's easy to claim things are fine when your worst worry is whether you should go with the gardener once a week or twice.

Meantime, what about ordinary people? Don't they deserve to live? Guess not.

-- Oswald Neimon

I often think experts miss the obvious. For instance, it is obvious to me that any job that can be remotely performed, will be within the next few years e.g., computer-based training, Web design, Web portals, instruction and training. Most of the jobs Secretary Reich is speaking of could be performed anywhere there is a network connection. This will happen as a cheaper way to do business. Only, the quality of this work will be in question.

Second, I wonder if these experts have used the same equipment that was recently installed at a local Jewel. Where does one put the empty cart? How about that annoying announcement that there is a bag in the way. And, yes, it is not faster.

-- Petra Hofmann

Where American "jobs" are about creativity, passion, human touch and so forth, then we'd better ramp up our educational system to teach people creative and critical thinking skills, and do something about the dehumanizing, isolating effects that technology like TV and the Internet have had on the American public. The as-yet-unsolved paradox is that technology breaks apart physical "meat-communities," allowing us to flee to gated communities where we don't have to actually interact with people who are not on the same intellectual/educational track as us.

-- Anca Mosoiu

Even more so than automation, the clearest trend in grocery stores is segmentation. In some categories, quality is becoming a key differentiator. There is much better bread available in most grocery stores than there was 10 years ago. Likewise coffee and cheese. A greater variety of produce is available regularly. On the other hand, there are undifferentiated, low-price versions of all of these products, which are cheaper than ever before. Wal-Mart, especially, specializes in providing commodity groceries at bargain prices. By contrast, many grocery chains and other specialty stores such as Whole Foods, have revamped existing stores and built new stores focused on improving the selection of these differentiated products, so that you can find 15 different kinds of fresh mushrooms and 20 kinds of fresh-baked breads.

Automation is the natural outcome for Wal-Mart and anyone else who chooses to compete with them in selling undifferentiated products. However, even more service is the natural outcome for stores that go upscale to compete. Not only are there people who serve as advisors within the stores, but there are immense opportunities for people who actually make these boutique products. When the primary sales differentiator is quality, microbreweries, boutique bakeries, and small cheese-makers have immense opportunities. While it might be a tossup whether working a cheese counter or checking out groceries is a more fulfilling job, making your own high-quality cheese using small-scale manufacturing techniques can be an extremely fulfilling job for those who pursue it, even when it isn't a path to riches.

Small-scale and midsize manufacturing of luxury goods has always been a vital industry in Europe, employing a vast number of people making products that have been renowned for their quality for centuries. As the sales channels for these products increase, this is a sector that is growing in the U.S., as well. And, frankly, automation of undifferentiated tasks helps this process. By shaking out costs that don't add value, such as checkout clerks, consumers have more money to spend on whatever goods add value to them, such as boutique foods. And if, for a given consumer, they don't like these products enough to spend more money on them, they can spend their money on other goods and services, creating jobs somewhere else in the economy.

For a given worker, a shift in the economy can be brutal and dislocating, and Robert Reich's call for better government support for dislocated workers makes sense. But for the economy as a whole, shifting workers from tasks that add no value to tasks that add more concrete value has a definite effect on the standard of living, and losing checkout clerks will be no more damaging than was losing the vast typing pools and data processing groups that corporations no longer need thanks to putting computers on everyone's desks.

-- Andrew Norris

Not all consumers "love" them. I work alone and have never used an ATM or self-checkout machine -- I want to deal with another person. I welcome the boarding pass kiosks because I want all the airlines to stay in business.

-- T. F. Kelley

Wih his new article, "Welcome to the Machine?" Farhad Manjoo joins the large list of people worrying about skill-less workers losing their jobs to efficient machines. But this is one of those topics that yields to simple analysis. We can prevent automation, or deal with its effects. Preventing it would be fantastically stupid, so how do we deal with its effects? By generating artificial low-skill ergo low-efficiency jobs, subsidized by more effective, productive workers? Or by educating them in the basics of economics and the world around them, and then helping them build useful skills? Once we understand these basics we can move on to the urgent debate of figuring out how to best help people become valuable and productive.

-- Steve Story

Automation may have arrived on the American retail scene, but I think it has a long way to go to replace human beings. Take self-checkout stations. Giant Eagle, a large grocery chain in my hometown (Pittsburgh), has them in most of its stores. But every single time I hit the store, the lines for the human cashiers are much longer than the lines for self-checkout. If automation provides so many benefits, why do many consumers reject it?

For starters, self-checkouts aren't as efficient as human cashiers. Customers soon realize that they have to do a lot more work. Essentially, the company is unloading its labor onto the consumer. With a human cashier and bagger team, I only have to put my groceries onto a conveyor belt. They are whisked past the cashier, who quickly scans, weighs and rings them up, to a bagger, who bags and loads them in my cart. If I change my mind about buying something, the cashier can take it off my bill. If an item doesn't scan correctly, the cashier can get a price check or manually enter the true cost of the item. If an item is defective (say, a leaky juice container), the cashier can call for a replacement. All I need to do after putting my groceries on the conveyor is pay and wheel my filled and bagged groceries from the store.

Contrast this with my experience at automated self-checkouts. I am forced to do the cashier's and bagger's jobs, since I need to scan everything and bag it. I am a lot less efficient at doing this than a supermarket employee would be -- for instance, I don't have the product codes for fruits and vegetables memorized. The scanning process itself is slower because the self-checkout announces the name and price of each item. (So much for privacy when buying sensitive personal hygiene products!) I can't remove items that I change my mind about. If something doesn't scan correctly, I'm stuck. If an item is defective, I have to stop ringing up my groceries to hunt up a new one. Net effect: It's a lot slower than going to a human cashier, especially if I am buying a lot of food. Even though the lines at the traditional cashier's station are usually longer, a cashier's greater efficiency means that I'll probably spend less time waiting and being rung up than if I went to a self-checkout.

On the other hand, pay-at-the-pump gas stations have worked out many of these issues. They are a lot more efficient for credit-card paying consumers than paying a human cashier, plus they don't have to split their time between several cars like a human gas station attendant. Their main shortcoming is that they don't accept cash.

In other words, my experience suggests that superior customer service does trump automation, but only if it saves the consumer time or provides some other tangible benefit.

-- Nancy Ott

As one of your main sources for your recent story on the mechanization of the American economy you cite Marshall Brain. Brain may be a leader of the Internet information boom, but he seems to know next to nothing about economics. The entirety of his work on this subject exists only to support his conclusion that the United States needs to adopt his radical socialist agenda. Brain wants to essentially federalize most private and state revenue sources, including the profits of major corporations, natural resources, intellectual property and a vast expansion of federal taxes. He wants to take all of that money, which currently belongs to the states and to the people, and use it as part of a radical wealth redistribution plan under which every American would be issued a check for $25,000. Brain is living in a dream world, one in which we haven't already proven that socialism doesn't work. In the future, I suggest you get more credible sources for your articles.

-- Amy Phillips

Marshall Brain and other advocates of a roboticized economy fail to take into account another trend that may stop industrial civilization in its tracks in our lifetimes, namely, Peak Oil. Many petroleum geologists have been warning that world oil production is likely to reach a historical maximum sometime this decade, if it hasn't already, then permanently decline thereafter. Refer, for example, to the story in the Aug. 2, 2003, issue of New Scientist magazine. We simply have no substitute for petroleum, which means that the high mobility we've taken for granted will have to end for lack of dense energy sources. Less mobility means less long-distance trade, lower standards of living and probably a massive Malthusian die-off as well. It doesn't sound like the sort of future economy that could build anything more sophisticated than a steam engine, much less an infrastructure of robots to take over the service work.

-- Mark Plus

I think the practice of deliberately understaffing checkout lines so that customers find it easier and more pleasant to go to automated systems, is related to other unfair employment practices in this country.

Currently it is common practice for many companies to overwork their salaried employees by 10-30 hours per week as a standard practice. I was actually offered a job where I was told it was a "50-hour base week." Usually the person just takes the job and then finds out too late it is really 50, 60 or 70 hours a week, uncompensated.

Furthurmore, this standard practice defrauds not only the employee, paying in fact less for their time than they are entitled to, and stealing their lives, but it defrauds the entire country.

For every four workers working 50 hours per week, there is another person who should have a job, be paying taxes, have health insurance and security and a decent life.

Instead we have high unemployment and a faltering economy, while profitable companies steal from you, me and their employees in order to increase their margins and give their highest executives million-dollar packages.

We have employees who are so afraid of losing their jobs and houses that they won't complain about unfair labor practices. After all, that's just the way it is these days. And there aren't any jobs out there, wonder why?

-- Susan Mangan

Salon Staff

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