Self-checkout came to supermarkets in the late 1980s. Ten years later, it began to spread to big boxes and drugstores. Now, loved by some and hated by others, self-checkout has made its way into discount clothing and department stores.
Kohl’s ( KSS ) is testing self-checkout stations in several stores. H&M has added them to three stores and plans to roll out the program to more than 30 stores by the end of next year. Bed Bath & Beyond ( BBBY ) first tested self-checkouts at its New York City flagship store last year and has since added them to several locations. Zara carries it in 20 of its largest stores in the United States.
Moreover, Uniqlo, Primark and other chains have started to release self-payment machines in some of their stores.
These retailers are beginning to adopt self-checkout for a variety of reasons, including labor savings, customer demand, and technology improvements.
Labor is one of the biggest expenses for stores, and as costs rise and more shoppers shop online, they’re trying to save money. Self-checkout transfers the work of paid employees to non-paying customers.
Self-checkout stations eliminate some of the need for human cashiers, which is why retail unions typically oppose the technology. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of cashiers in the retail industry is expected to decline by 10% over the next decade, due in part to the increase in self-checkout.
These stores also cater to customers who prefer self-checkout and find it faster and more convenient than checking out with a traditional cashier. Millions of customers used self-checkout for the first time and got used to the technology to minimize close contact with staff and other shoppers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But these companies’ attempts to bring self-checkout to stores come with risks, including irritated customers and more shoplifting.
According to a survey of 1,000 shoppers last year, 67% said they had failed at the self-checkout lane. Errors at kiosks are so common that they’ve even spawned dozens of memes and TikTok videos of customers complaining about “unexpected item in the bagging area” alert.
Customers make honest mistakes when scanning barcodes, as well as intentionally steal items at unmanned self-checkout booths.
“It creates some real challenges,” said Adrian Beck, an emeritus professor at the University of Leicester and a retail industry consultant. Beck believes retail losses are higher at self-checkouts than at cash registers with staff.
Traditionally, clothing and department stores have relied on hard security tags on merchandise to prevent theft. This is a problem for self-checkout: customers are not used to removing security tags themselves, and most self-checkout machines are not equipped to do so.
To overcome this, some clothing stores use wireless “radio frequency identification” security tags, also known as RFID, instead of hard tags on merchandise.
Stores such as Uniqlo have invested in new self-checkout machines that automatically recognize these tags, eliminating the need for customers to manually scan any product or remove security tags. Customers simply drop their goods into a designated bin at the drive-thru point and the machine automatically identifies the product and displays the price on the screen.
The rollout of self-checkout has other implications for budget-oriented clothing and department stores.
Christopher Andrews, a sociologist at Drew University and author of The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Economy of the Self, reinforces the divide in retail, where one segment of customers is better served than others.
While shoppers of all incomes visit these stores, customers of luxury brands are unlikely to do “supervised forced unpaid work,” Andrews said.
“Is this the first glimpse of a future where the wealthy receive personalized service and the working classes are required to do free work to buy food and clothing?”