22 Nov 2023

Self-Checkout Stress

The march of self-service checkouts in our stores continues apace, with the exception of Booths, a northern supermarket chain which announced last week that it was removing the machines from all but two of its stores.

Elsewhere, shoppers are promised greater speed and efficiency, and supermarket bosses reassure us that former checkout staff will be deployed throughout the store, patrolling the aisles and available to offer a helping hand to harassed customers. But it is now a perfectly normal experience to go to a supermarket and not to have any contact with the staff; self-checkouts have eradicated the all-important social interaction provided by friendly cashiers.

We’re told that for some lonely people, a brief exchange about the weather, weekend plans, exotic foodstuffs, rising prices and so on is the only social contact that they enjoy all week. Even for those of us who are lucky enough to have busy, sociable lives, a brief conversational exchange with a stranger will provide a boost to our spirits. It is positive, reassuring and, above all, it is polite. It might persuade you to crack a smile, to pause for a moment as you frantically bag up your goods; it will make you feel like an agreeable human being, rather than a frazzled automaton.

We all bemoan the drawbacks of self-checkouts: the “unexpected object in the bagging area”, the scales that don’t work, the codes that won’t scan, the alcohol and paracetamol that must be verified by a sales assistant. Frequently, we end up calling for assistance more than once during the whole experience. Older people, in particular, are confused and flustered by the technology; many of them find it a daunting challenge and bemoan the lack of helpful checkout staff.

But when we do finally summon a real human being, the interaction is inevitably utilitarian. We are annoyed because our check-out process has been stalled, and if we’re stressed or under time pressure, we might be rude and peremptory. The assistant has been called over to perform a specific function, not to engage in an enjoyable chat, and the encounter has zero social value.

It must be trying for the shop assistants too, who find their encounters with customers being reduced to snappy, irritable exchanges over an obstinately malfunctioning scanner. It is surely a much more attractive prospect to sit at a till, helpfully performing a function for shoppers, looking them in the eye, exchanging greetings and pleasantries.

Supermarkets all over Britain are reporting an alarming rise in shoplifting. While austerity is an obvious explanation, some storeowners are beginning to recognise that the de-humanising experience of the self-checkout, the glitches, the confusion, the lack of supervision, all make shoplifting considerably easier. Aggrieved and frustrated shoppers who can’t make a scanner work are increasingly likely to sidestep the whole scanning exercise and feelings of guilt will be considerably assuaged by the fact that they have not had a single interaction with a human being since entering the store.

Earlier this year rail companies proposed to remove manned ticket offices from most stations, unleashed a public outcry and were forced to reverse the policy. Many older passengers argued that they would find an entirely automated ticket transaction extremely challenging, while passengers with additional needs or those who were contemplating complex journeys contested the decision because they felt that helpful and sympathetic station staff were uniquely able to navigate and interpret the complexities of the system and find a pragmatic solution.

As with supermarkets, the proposal also carried a hidden cost, in that it deprived rail-users of an agreeable social encounter. Regular travellers, nervous passengers, older rail users who find travelling stressful, all confirmed that a friendly human interaction with a ticket-office clerk was an effective way of assuaging their anxiety and made the whole journey much more civilised and palatable. When it comes to reassuring interactions, listening skills and empathy, human beings trump machines every time.

In the past, running errands – such as going to the shops, the library, the bank, or purchasing a ticket from the local railway station – might have been slow, and was possibly inefficient, but above all it was a sociable experience. Greetings were exchanged with serving staff, small talk sometimes ensued, and a feeling of belonging to a human community was reinforced. We are beginning to lose access to these mundane social contacts and that loss comes at a price, reinforcing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

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