Befriending Self-Checkouts Seems Inevitable – Writer’s Bloc

Self-checkouts in grocery stores are now more popular than checkouts. But as grocers embrace technology, are consumers benefiting?

Self-checkouts have long been an unloved tool in the retail world. At first, nothing worked as it should, especially at the grocery store where an order of 20 items brought a new kind of desperation.

But even though the mere presence of self-service checkouts bothered many consumers, Canadians apparently befriended them in one way or another.

Less than a year ago, data from Dalhousie University indicated that, for the first time, self-checkouts were becoming the preferred option for customers when leaving the grocery store. As many as 53.2 percent of Canadians were identified as intending to use self-checkouts regularly in the future. Sixty percent of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2005) and Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) planned to use these cashierless checkouts more.

Before the pandemic in 2019 – according to market researcher CivicScience – only 19% of customers aged 55 and over felt ready to use self-service checkouts, compared to 35% of customers aged 35-54. At the time, cashiers remained the favourite. option for all demographic groups.

So consumers loved to hate these machines. But things have changed.

Self-checkouts are growing in popularity, even surpassing serviced checkouts. According to a survey conducted by Dalhousie University in early May, in partnership with grocery app provider Caddle in early May, 75% of Canadians have used grocery store self-checkouts at least once in the last six months. And 85.1% of Canadians said they were satisfied with their experience.

Additionally, 47% of Canadians say they are willing to visit a grocery store without a cashier, where all purchases are recorded by digital sensors. The sensors allow consumers to add what they want to their cart and leave the premises without going through the checkouts. Amazon Go is the best-known model for this service. The number of people willing to use such technology was much lower before the pandemic.

The technology is increasingly accepted by grocery shoppers. And it is improving, becoming more intuitive and efficient. Instead of simply giving consumers another option to exit the store while grappling with the optics of job-stealing machines, grocers are clearly tech-savvy and no longer holding back.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cashiers were considered heroes and everyone wished them a raise. Elected officials have even criticized the big chains for abandoning certain compensation programs that offered better conditions to employees.

But the reality is that hiring and retaining staff remains difficult, and it’s even worse with the current labor shortage in Canada. Thus, automation and robotics are slowly becoming priorities in the food industry, especially in restaurants and retail.

Once their choice is made, few consumers want to queue to pay. Waiting to pay for your groceries is so 2019. Some want to chat and socialize, sure, but many just want to get what they need as quickly as possible and socialize somewhere else.

Food retailers accept that the labor market is changing and that workers in the sector will want to perform different and more sophisticated tasks requiring advanced knowledge and skills. Gone are the days of hiring people to do repetitive tasks. Machines are replacing jobs that no one wants to fill.

However, these technologies force customers to do more work, without compensation. Financial institutions made a major change decades ago with ATMs. At the time, customers were asked to do more while promising lower bank charges. We now know that just the opposite happened.

Unlike banks, the work done in grocery stores is a food safety and security issue. The cost of food and how it is processed is very important to everyone. If self-checkouts mean higher prices in the future, consumers don’t benefit. But grocers will.

Taxing companies that opt ​​for this type of technology that directly affects consumers has been proposed from time to time. It’s time to revisit the concept.

At the very least, why not offer a reward or incentive to consumers for using these machines? If consumers have to do more work during in-store visits, they also have to take advantage of it in some way.

Technology is redefining the social contract grocers have with consumers. And our relationship with grocers will change accordingly. That’s not a bad thing, as long as consumers benefit in some way.

Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agrifood Analysis Laboratory and Professor of Food Distribution and Policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.