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Self-checkout is turning us into thieves – but it’s not our fault

By February 4, 2024No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)


Do you hate self-checkout kiosks? Do you find them to be difficult, time-consuming and frustrating? Well, you’re wrong. It’s not the self-service kiosks that are the problem. It’s you.

For starters, you’re clearly unable to follow directions. When you buy an apple, you put the apple in the bag which needs to be on the designated place to the side of the kiosk where there’s a scale underneath so the machine can verify the weight of the apple otherwise you cannot proceed to the next item. Do you not see that? Can you not follow these instructions? Every apple counts, dammit. What is wrong with you?

Also, you’re a terrible speller. It’s not “broccolli” it’s “broccoli” – never mind that you are juggling groceries, bags and a small child. Learn to spell! C’mon, there are two T’s in prosciutto! And it’s Thousand Island dressing, not 1000 Island. Geez, these are basic facts. No, not everything has a barcode on it. You can’t blame the self-service kiosks if they require basic literacy.

Small merchants and big retail are also to blame for the debacle that is self-checkout

Here’s something your mother won’t say: you’re also a thief. According to a recent article by tech writer Thomas Germain in Gizmodo, big retailers like Target, Walmart and Dollar General are seriously scaling back or eliminating their self-service checkouts. Why? Because of theft! “Not only is it easy to steal from self-checkout machines, it can be hard not to steal from them,” writes Germain. “Shoppers are reportedly 21 times more likely to sneak items past machines than human cashiers.”

But it’s not all your fault.

Small merchants and big retail are also to blame for the debacle that is self-checkout. They’re the ones who invested too much time and money in these confounding machines and they’re the ones that have had to spend more money and deploy the army of peeved high schoolers to come to monitor your every move or come to the rescue and, with a sigh, punch in their secret codes for the trillionth time that day.

The strange thing about self-checkout is that for all its humiliations, people like it. One survey from last year found nearly two-thirds of respondents preferred it to human interactions. Retailers facing labor shortages and higher costs like it too. These technologies will continue to come down in price and be more reliable. Ultimately, even the smallest of retailers will be able to offer this option.

But in the meantime, many are just doing what my local grocery market does. They’re sticking to manual checkout. Why? Because in a neighborhood market, merchants know their customers. They don’t want to make you feel dumb or dodgy. And they don’t care how you spell “prosciutto”.

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