I long to destroy self-checkout machines – and at last, there’s a glimmer of hope | Coco Khan

Call me morbid, but I have long known what quote I want on my headstone: “Here lies Coco – unexpected item in bagging area”. Why not? After all, it is the soundtrack of my life, and if little else giving passersby a laugh would be a worthy legacy. And now, if the latest news from the supermarket Booths is a sign of things to come, it may also prove a useful reminder to future generations of the strange way we once lived.

Last week, due to continuing customer demand, the north of England supermarket chain announced its plan to replace self-service tills with human cashiers. It turns out that its customers – like many of us – prefer the problem-solving capacity of a human mind to being bossed around by a machine.

Booths is the first supermarket to go this way, swimming against the tide of self-service tills that have now embedded themselves on the high street. So could these machines soon be relegated to history? It is too early to say. But as someone who has held self-service checkouts in contempt for a long time, I would happily be the one to pull the plug.

Self-service tills were supposed to deliver unparalleled levels of convenience. Long queues, we were led to believe, would be a thing of the past. Staff, we were told, would be freed up to do other jobs, such as stock replenishment and telling dishevelled-looking women searching for potato waffles (me, yesterday) where to find the frozen aisle.

The promise was, as it so often is, more options and more choice. But now, many fast-paced urban supermarkets barely have a cashier in sight. Should you have an issue such as needing a refund or returning something damaged, tracking a person down is often impossible. However, that frustration pales in comparison with the social cost of these machines.

In 2019, a report found that 75,000 retail jobs were lost to self-service tills and other automation – most of them once occupied by women. Men were able to pick up the jobs that were created by the machine revolution – namely delivery driving and warehouse work. But women were often out on their ears.

This was an entirely predictable outcome. The retail workforce has long been dominated by women – it’s a sector where part-time work and flexible shift patterns are more common, as well as an arena where traditionally “female skills” (caring and social skills) are valued. This isn’t to romanticise retail work or the male-skewed warehouse and delivery work – both are underpaid and working conditions need much improvement – but it’s honest about the lack of alternative opportunities.

My (single) mum raised me on a shop job. My first job as a 17-year-old was in a shop (RIP Debenhams) back when Saturday jobs were common. But in 2020, the Resolution Foundation raised the alarm over the “death of the Saturday job” and the loss of this life-skill-building opportunity for young people. Retail job cuts were partly to blame.

This seems like a steep price to pay for … what? A slight improvement in the level of my convenience? I’m not sure I’m that important. And I’m not convinced it is any more convenient when you consider how frequently customers need assistance doing the simplest things. I’m old enough to enjoy getting IDed for wine, but not when it triggers a massive queue as multiple customers wait for assistance. Figures from the US found that 67% of shoppers have experienced a self-checkout failure, and there is little evidence that self-service tills are any faster.

The truth is the only people who have ever benefited from these machines are the shareholders and the company bosses. They save on labour costs because now we, the customers, do the job for free. These days I find myself trying to avoid self-service checkouts altogether, as some sort of personal protest. Others have cottoned on to their unfairness too. Some academics have suggested it is why people feel so free to steal using them: “Individuals can neutralise guilt they might otherwise feel when stealing by telling themselves … no human being is actually being hurt by this, only some mega-corporation that can surely afford the loss of a few quid,” said Shadd Maruna, a criminology professor at the University of Manchester in 2018.

Do I think it’s logical, or even healthy, to have such hatred for an inanimate object? Probably not. Ultimately, we can get rid of the self-service machine, but if the same supermarket bosses are in charge – the ones who have been accused of greedflation and received bumper bonuses this year at the height of the cost of living crisis – I’m not convinced consumers won’t just be squeezed in other ways.

So instead I’ll support the trade unions as they try to protect jobs from automation, I’ll feed back to the shop’s head office that I prefer human staff and, when possible, shop somewhere that has them. But still I dream of overwhelming the machines with pomegranates until they self-destruct; or of a day when they are consigned to history and I can hear that mechanical voice for the last time – never will it feel so sincere – “Thank you,” it says. “Goodbye.”


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