Have you been to the grocery store lately? Automated cash registers, self-serve, and no clerk, just you and a computer. Maybe not in your town or city, but they will be there soon. They are becoming more and more popular. Spreading their reach even out of the world of grocery stores and into a variety of other retail stores such as Wal-marts, K-Marts, Targets, and some home improvement stores (Hartzog).

It is almost hard to imagine, but it works much like an ATM machine. One scans their items, sets them in the bag, which sits upon a scale. The scale then reads the weight of the object making sure that its weight is the same as the one programmed into the machine. The register then notifies the customer how much they owe and the person swipes their card, or inserts cash, waits for your change and receipt, then picks up their bag and leaves. “If you have produce, a separate scale will weigh the item as you punch in what you have purchased. A surveillance camera also records all of this. If you punch in that you have purchased green apples when actually you are weighing red apples according to the surveillance footage, then the computer will ask you again for identification of the item being weighed” (Hartzog). These machines are even coupon friendly, after you have completed all you scanning and before you pay you can scan you coupons to get extra savings.

For a mpeg movie that shows a woman scaning and baging an item click here:

For an mpeg movie that shows someone paying with credit click here:

These self-serve registers have not been around long. They definitely have been a product of our fast moving de-skilling society. In 1996 some stores in the Philadelphia area began testing the self-service registers. In February of 1998 Wired News put out an article concerning the self-serve cash register, which says, “if trials are successful, shoppers will soon have the opportunity to scan their own groceries” (Philipkoski).

These new registers are being integrated into grocery stores for a number of reasons, the main one being in order to save money. Dan Rodgers, the president of the Grocery Outlet in Wenatchee, Washington said, “it can save an astronomical amount in labor costs” ( Philipkoski). One of the other goals of the self-serve register is to speed up checkout lines, or at least give the customer the illusion that they do not waste as much time in the store. “The customer feels it is faster because they walk up and do the scanning themselves” (Some Stores are Almost).

Pros of the self-service cash register: One advantage of the self-service registers is that you can get more people checked-out of a store with out as much labor being used. One cashier can over see four self-service registers. This can save employers lots of money on the bottom line. Many consumers enjoy the convenience of being able to quickly check their own items instead of waiting in line. Even if it takes a little longer to pay for ones items by going through the self-service line there is no down time the consumer is always doing something therefore it seems like no time was wasted. Where as if one waits in line for the clerk to check all their items it seems like it takes longer. “People using the self-service line feel they are getting out of the store more quickly” (Hartzog). Some customers just like the fact that they can bag their own items the way they would like them bagged. Smaller stores see it as an edge, which they have over their competitors, “it you cannot compete in price, you can in convince” (Hartzog). “Ultimately the labor force could benefit too: by checking their own groceries, consumers might help reduce the ever increasing number of repetitive stress injuries suffered by checkers” (Philipkoski).

Cons of the self service cash register: Cons of self-service technology: There are many problems that go a long with the integration of the self-serve register. For starters it takes everything personal away from coming to a grocery store. No gossiping with the cashier or asking his or her opinion about the movie you just rented at the Blockbuster next door. “It’s like being served a beer by a robot in a pub” (Some Stores). When a customer has a problem or a question about an item while they are using a self-service register they do not have a cashier right their to ask questions. Even though most grocery store cashiers are unionized their jobs are still threatened. Because of these machines the stores labor costs are being cut. Those cuts are coming from the cashiers pay checks even though they are not being fired their hours are being cut leaving them with less money. Technological innovations do not get rid of work they eliminate jobs.

Technological unemployment and how it relates to self-service cash registers: The topic of Technological unemployment is gradually becoming one of serious implications as more and more workers jobs are being replaced by technology. The basic idea behind the principle of technological unemployment is that, as we venture further into the twenty first century, rapidly improving and powerful computers, telecommunications, and robots to name a few technologies are gradually eliminating workers and taking control of the work place. They are able to work much harder and proficiently than the human labor, which is now being displaced, to different industries. In his book The End of Work economist, Jeremy Rifkin deals with the issue of America’s changing, technologically minded industries: “Faced with anemic markets, both at home and abroad, many companies have turned to new laborsaving technology as a way of cutting costs and squeezing more profit out of an ever shrinking revenue base.” “American companies, being very cost sensitive, are really trying to substitute machinery for labor rather than purchase more machinery and more labor,” says David Wyss, chief economist for the consulting firm of DRS/McGraw-Hill. While U.S. companies spent more than $592 billion in 1993 on new capital, The Commerce Department reports that less than $120 billion went into the construction of new factories and buildings that require more workers. The rest went to upgrading the efficiency of existing facilities, allowing companies to produce the same output at fewer costs and with fewer workers. Of course, the savings prove to be only temporary. Fewer workers translates into less purchasing power for the economy as a whole, further shrinking potential markets and revenues.”(Rifkin, p.35) While initially and most extensively technological unemployment has ravaged the industrial sectors, our investigation into the U-scan system at Fred Meyer suggests that it could have a negative effect on the retail sectors of the economy as well. Our interviewee Mia told us that although Fred Meyer is under a union contract with a fixed number of cashiers on their payroll, around half of her coworkers have felt threatened by the introduction of U-scan. Also, although she wouldn’t go into exact details, she did imply that many Fred Meyer employees had undergone a considerable decline in working hours since the onslaught of the new self-checkout systems. If only four U-scan machines in a store with at least fifteen regular cashiers can cause a significant loss of jobs, then perhaps these U-scans could cause significant amount technological unemployment as they become more frequently incorporated into grocery and retail stores.

Results of interviews and polls taken at Burlingame Fred Meyer:

At the Burlinggame Fred Meyer we conducted brief interviews with customers and cashiers about their feelings on the U-scan system. We also compared the speed of the two systems at a reasonably busy time in the store: We both picked out five items, one payed using the U-scan while the other used the 10 items or less express lane. The express line had around five people in front of me, while the u-scan had all four machines in use with four people waiting before Joe. My whole checkout process ended up taking just over four minutes while joe had finished the self-checkout in under two minutes. While there are obviously many unchecked variables as to the speed of the lines (people using coupons, taking a long time with credit cards, etc.), this experience would lead one to believe that as long as the customer is reasonably proficient and quck with the U-scan system, the self checkout is a good deal faster when only buying a small number of items. Buying large amounts of foods, however, is still much more time efficient when using a traditional store clerk to checkout. At Fred Meyer, we also had a more extensive ten question Interview with Mia, the person in charge of looking over the U-scan and who we were referred to as the most knowledgeable on the subject by management.

Here is a recap of the Questions and responses:
#1: How many register cleks did you have before and after U-scan was introduced?
Mia: The same, because Fred Meyer has a union Contract requiring a certain number of cashiers to work. People’s hours have decreased, though.
#2: Does the U-scan system save Fred Meyer money?
M: Yes, It’s pretty much like the store maintaining four cashiers for the price of one.
#3: Is theft a larger problem with U-scan than with traditional cashiers?
M: I’m not sure.
#4: Is using U-scan faster than using a regular register?
M: It is if people aren’t buying too many things and also once people get used to using the system.
#5: What security measures are implaced and how many staff are employed to monitor U-scan?
M: Each U-scan station has a camera that I watch while supervising self checkout. As well the U-scan system is checked by Fred Meyer security like the rest of the store.
#6: Is U-scan more or less prone to making errors than regular registers?
M: I think they are about the same.
#7: Is credit card fraud more of a problem with U-scan?
M: I would say it is because with the U-scan system credit and debit card purchases under fifty dollars don’t require me looking at the card or a signature.
#8: Working as a cashier, do you feel that your job security is threatened with the Introduction of U-scan registers?
M: I definitely felt threatened at first, and I would say around half of all cashiers felt the same way. A lot of people have complained about the decline in working hours because of the U-scan.
#9: What percentage of customers use U-scan?
M: I would say around fifty to sixty percent of customers with relatively small purchases use U-scan.
#10: Has Fred Meyer conducted any studies concerning the advantages of a self checkout system?
M: About a year before the U-scan was introduced a few months ago, Fred Meyer gave the system a trial in the stores.

We also conducted smaller interviews with shoppers. We asked them where they pay for their groceries, at the self-service registers or at the traditional registers with a cashier. We also asked method of payment they prefer and why. Around a third of these shoppers said they use U-scan when they don’t have too many things to buy. Those who did use the U-scan had generally preffered it for is speed when compared to the store’s regular cashiers with long lines at a busy time of day. People who used regular checkout had a wide variety of reasons for it: some preffered the real cashier because they were helpful with coupons and other details, and quite a few people said they stuck to the register just out of habit. One woman said: “ I think I might prefer the U-scan, but its something new I would have to learn, and when I come here its not to learn, just the routine.” Others simply stated they just didn’t feel inclined to use the self checkout and felt the service provided for you was much more preferrable, perhaps showing some disdain for the lack of service in the U-scan system. Although the store was quite busy at the time, we were able to ask one cashier if she felt her job was threatened bt the new U-scan system. She responded: “No because the U-scan system is attractive to younger and more computer literate people, however quite a lot of people, especially the elderly, find it intimidating and will always go to the traditional registers.”

Conclusion:In conclusion we decided that self-service cash registers could have either a good effect or bad effect depending on from which perspective one looks at the issue. For a company like Fred Meyer, the U-scan is a positive entity in that it is a great help on improving long checkout lines slowing down the store, but perhaps the driving force behind the introduction of self-service checkout systems is their ability to save labor costs. As our interviewee Mia said: “Its like having four cashiers for he price of one,” referring to the fact that Fred Meyer has the luxury of only hiring one person to monitor four U-scan machines instead of the traditional one person per checkout line. Positive aspects of U-scan for the customer are a speedy checkout, and around half of shoppers with a relatively small amount of items to buy are already using the U-scan system. As for the negative aspects accompanying the use of U-scan, many customers who don’t use the system complain that it is too impersonal and help isn’t readily available when problems arise. Also, many and in particular older customers feel intimidated by the new technology and are reluctant to try it. For workers the U-scan has obviously negative connotations in that it has the potential to replace human labor with that of a machine, a cost saving endeavor once the machines have been installed. Currently one can see that the introduction of U-scans has brought about a dive in working hours for grocery store employees, and if this is occurring in the introductory phase it will certainly lead to mass technological unemployment if at sometime Fred Meyer and others were to decide on implementing self checkout systems on a larger scale, say ten or more per store. U-scan is without a doubt a convenient and innovative way of speeding up checkout lines at a store, but could lead to serious problems if it continues to displace workers’ hours and in the future has the possibility of replacing them altogether.


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Hartzog, Carol. Check it out: If you’er in a rush, scan your own groceries, swipe your card and you’er on your way. Edmond Sun; 2000. <>

Philliposki, Kristen. Checkout goes Self-Serve. Wired news: 1998. <,1282,10137,00.html>

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Some Stores Are Almost entirely do-it-your-self. Associated Press: 1996 <>