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Seán Moncrieff: Self-service tills are not quicker - could they actually be bad for our health?

Every time – every single time – I get the ‘approval needed’ announcement and hear myself saying to some 20-year-old: I am desperate for your approval

If you’re one of those people who still does the big weekly shop, or you go to smaller shops a few times a week, or just nip in to get the few things you forgot to include in the click-and-collect, you probably operate a shopping strategy. You may do it without even realising it.

Some people go up and down each aisle, hoping to be reminded of what they need. Some just go straight to the relevant sections and pick what they want. Some have memorised the shop layout and have constructed their shopping list accordingly.

But the business of paying and exiting the shop is more contingent on last-minute decisions. How long is each checkout queue? And just as importantly, how stuffed are the baskets in it? An assessment of the individual shoppers is also key: you don’t want to be stuck behind someone who looks flustered or moves slowly or takes items from their basket one-by-one or decides to have an extended chat with the supermarket worker.

Or you could decide that the quickest and most efficient route out of the shop is to go through the self-service checkout.


Except it’s not. It never is. Going through the self-service checkout is a vivid example of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result (which, by the way, Einstein never said or wrote. Your T-shirt is wrong. It’s not known where the quote comes from).

The queue at self-service is always longer. There are always one or two people who don’t seem to know how the machines work. There are always machines out of order, or that won’t take cards or cash. There’s always one harassed member of staff dashing between the machines trying to keep things moving: or a member of staff pointedly moving at the slowest possible speed. I don’t blame them. The machines break and they get the grief from shoppers. Every time – every single time – I get the APPROVAL NEEDED announcement and hear myself saying to some 20-year-old: I am desperate for your approval. They stare back at me blankly, all hope already rinsed from their eyes.

Evil supermarkets, reducing the number of checkout staff and getting us to do the work instead. Actually, no: stupid supermarkets copying each other for no good reason. Research in the US found virtually no change in staffing levels over a 10-year period despite the widespread introduction of self-service tills. A few cashiers may have been laid off in that period, but the supermarkets had to hire much higher-paid technicians to keep the stupid machines from constantly breaking down.

In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that self-service is costing the supermarkets money. One study had it that in a shop where half the transactions are self-service, losses increase by 77 per cent: you know, you forgot to weigh that carrot, but you’re hardly going to go all the way back to the vegetable section with all your shopping, weigh it, then return and start all over again. So, you ring it through as something else. There’s also simple pilfering (don’t say you haven’t been tempted) or shoppers making honest mistakes.

Self-service tills are not quicker either. They’ve studied that too. It just seems that way because your time is occupied with carrying out tasks.

One small chain in the north of England announced last year that they would get rid of self-service, but the rest are doggedly hanging on and for no apparent reason. They don’t save time or money. They take human interaction out of the shopping experience. And they may even be bad for your health.

An outfit in the UK called the Infection Innovation Consortium took swabs at a number of self-service checkouts and found five different types of disease-causing bacteria. This included Enterococcus, which is normally found in human poo. Yes. There is an unexpected item in the bagging area.