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Is it time for the checkout to checkout?

15 Oct 10:00 by Charles Inett

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Love or hate it , supermarket self-service is here to stay. It started with self-service tills slowly taking over the supermarket and creeping their way into smaller stores, but now a new type of self service has entered the frame. A ‘till free’ service.

It feels like a big leap to jump to the next stage of self-service when I myself still have mixed feelings about what we have already. On one hand, self-service tills cuts out the middle man and potentially save a whole load of painful queuing. But on the other hand, it constantly breaks, half of them don’t take cash and it never seems to know if something is in the bagging area or not.

Regardless of my personal feelings though, Sainsbury’s believe that the positives outweigh the negatives and they are now trialling a ‘till free’ store. But what even is ‘till free’ and will it be a step above from what we have already?

Rise of the self-serve supermarket

The idea is simple enough, first download an app onto your phone and then scan all products you intend to buy as you put them into your basket or trolley. At the end of your shop, simply scan your phone by the shop's exit and the app will automatically pay for all your scanned products. No queues, no waiting, no fuss!

We are not entirely in I-Robot territory though, as there will still be a need for staff. Products that have age restrictions such as alcohol will still require an over 25 check and there will still be a till for those without a smart phone or for those who don’t understand it.

In a perfect world this seems like a positive for everyone. No longer will I need to  hear the dreaded “please place the items onto the bagging area” and have to awkwardly ask for assistance. You may ask “what is not to love?”, but like any plan with good intentions, the devil is always in the detail.

All the small things

In the previous paragraph I assumed that ‘till-free’ shopping would work perfectly, but as we all know, technology breaks. A lot.

It is the little things I worry about when I think about scanning all my shopping with my phone. What happens if the barcode does not register? How frustrating will it be to manually type the barcode digits into my phone? I could go ask a shop assistant for help, but how many of them will be left? It is no secret that businesses are always looking to cut costs any without tills needed to be manned by staff, how many people will be made redundant?

Not only would that be terrible for the people working at these stores but it also means finding someone to help could be harder. I can imagine that many people simply won’t understand how to use the app and will need plenty of help from shop assistants, will this mean that instead of queuing at a till, will we be queuing for a human instead? I can’t tell if that is ironic or not!

I could list many more issues such as the wireless going down, forgetting your phone at home or bugs that have not been discovered yet but these will all need to be ironed out.

I admit that a lot of my concerns can be fixed over time with trial and error, but one flaw that cannot so easily be fixed might be closer to home than we think.

The Devil in us

I like to think that I am not the sort of person to steal, but what happens if an opportunity presents itself? What happens if you are at a supermarket and self-scan a bunch of fruit but the till only recognises your bunch for one? Do you take that as a win or do you hunt down a shop assistant and ask them for assistance? Is it even a moral dilemma for you as after all, it is a victimless crime.

Many people must believe it’s a victimless crime because it has been reported that £3 billion was lost last year due to self-service checkouts. This causes supermarkets to increase their prices to cover loses. If I have to watch the ‘Freddo’ chocolate bar increase in price any more I am going to lose it.

Even though £3 billion is a crazy amount of money to lose each year, supermarkets are in no way slowing down on self-checkouts. Simple business deducts that self-service checkouts must make more money than they lose.

Time will tell how successful a ‘till-free’ checkout will be. But without any shop assistants around, will the money lost only increase? Will supermarkets cover this by laying off more staff and increasing the price of even more chocolate? Or am I just being a cynic and disregarding a pro-consumer act? I have a feeling that it won’t take long to find out but I also believe that when it is all over, the winners will be the supermarkets.