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Self-checkouts raise interesting questions

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Controversy has erupted in California over legislation that would restrict retailers’ use of self-checkout systems.

Controversy has erupted in California over legislation that would restrict retailers’ use of self-checkout systems.

At presstime, the California Grocers Association was lobbying Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto a bill the industry group asserts would effectively preclude the use of such technology in the state’s supermarkets.

Proponents of the measure, which if signed into law would prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages through self-checkout lanes, say that it would curtail underage drinking, drunk driving and incidents of theft.

Grocers association president Ronald Fong counters that "Assembly bill 1060 presents itself as feel-good legislation but in reality is about punishing innovation and protecting union dues," adding that the systems can be programmed to prevent the completion of a transaction without the intervention of store personnel when an age-restricted product is scanned.

The association’s argument is persuasive. Supermarket operators would not deploy the technology without adequate safeguards. If it allowed underage consumers to obtain alcoholic beverages more easily than traditional checkouts, that would threaten their lucrative liquor licenses.

The bigger question is what such systems say about retailers and their attitude toward customers and employees. Intended as a convenience for shoppers, the technology is designed to speed the checkout process, which in most cases it succeeds in doing. At the same time, for as long as it takes to scan products and pay for them, it turns the customer into a store associate.

That paradigm shift has already occurred to a considerable extent in businesses ranging from banking to air travel. Gas stations are perhaps the closest analogy to mass retailing; today most people are perfectly comfortable fueling their cars themselves.

What grocery, drug and discount store operators need to keep in mind is that service remains central to their business. If self-checkout systems are put in place to give shoppers another option for obtaining the products they want efficiently, implementation represents positive change; if they are utilized to mask the shortcomings of the traditional checkout process, it should be taken as a warning sign. For most consumers, human interaction is still an important part of the retail experience.


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