Self-service checkouts are hell - especially for those being left behind

If I were a paid cashier, I'd be sacked, but I'm not; I'm a paying customer spending a small fortune.


I may be off my trolley, but I'd prefer to be stuck behind someone with a cart overflowing with their family shop than use self-service checkouts. It could be in protest at the replacement of my fellow cashiers or checkout chicks, as we were known back in the day at Kmart Bankstown when I was a student. Most of the employees "manning" the tills were, in fact, women and girls.

Shopper using self-service checkout at supermarket
Self-service checkouts can make for a frustrating experience. Source: Getty

'Unexpected item in bagging area'

More likely, it's in defiance of that irritating monotone robotic voice instructing me what to do as if I was still in the employ of the above as I laboriously scan the 40 items in my cart. "Please place the item in the bagging area!" it drones with authority. I've just scanned it, mate; I testily reply before the machine tells me I've put "an unexpected item in bagging area". Then it reports me to management for my sloppy fruit and veg weighing skills by ordering me to "please wait for assistance".

Talk about a time-suck, especially when you scan the checkout area to see more flashing red lights than at a cop convention until a lone, much-put-upon employee overrides the system and saves your bacon. If I were a paid cashier, I'd be sacked, but I'm not; I'm a paying customer spending a small fortune.

Nearly two decades ago, self-service checkouts started popping up in Australia, promising to save customers time and, conveniently, save stores a tonne of money. Yet in the real world, studies report, self-service checkouts aren't quicker. It feels that way because we're actively doing something (someone else's job) rather than waiting in the queue while still dealing with technological issues resulting in user frustration.

I'm not alone in this frustration; a quick scroll through TikTok and you'll find #selfservicecheckout has over 4.43 million views, with shoppers moaning about them or bragging about ripping them off.

Broccoli being scanned at self-service checkout
In a Finder survey of 1,100 Aussies, 9 per cent of respondents admitted to stealing items at self-service checkouts, while 10 per cent have reduced their bills by deliberately lying about what they've scanned. Source: Getty

'Makes us all feel like criminals'

The technology is becoming frighteningly impressive or, in some cases, oppressive. Woolworths unleashed an AI tech to 250 stores in NSW, Queensland and Victoria that uses camera vision to let you know when items are not scanned properly.

Retailers like Kmart are cracking down on curbing shoplifters at their self-service checkouts with their new anti-theft systems, which involves making shoppers line up twice, once at the self-service checkout and then again as you leave the store. You'll find an employee masquerading as a security guard, scanner in hand, digitally scanning your receipt to ensure you haven't diddled the self-service till. It makes us all feel like criminals, not to mention the stress of worrying that the register has done its job correctly.

Vulnerable being left behind

And as we phase out cashiers, inevitably, people get left behind. In particular, people with a disability and older Australians may find high-tech checkouts inaccessible, whether struggling to understand the new technology or physically using the scanner and touchscreens.

My stepdad, 83, refuses to use self-service checkouts at his local Coles, where he has seen the number of cashiers dwindle. A friendly chap, he enjoys the social interaction with the cashier as they exchange pleasantries. Recently he's been complaining about the long queues, which as a cancer sufferer, can be wearing for him.

Elderly woman shopping in supermarket
Elderly shoppers should be considered when it comes to the checkout experience, says National Seniors Australia Chief Advocate Ian Henschke. Source: Getty

National Seniors Australia Chief Advocate Ian Henschke says the move towards self-service checkouts in supermarkets across Australia mustn't be at the expense of the elderly. "We understand the move to a more automated society, and closely related to ATM and bank closures, the decline in the use of cash and cheques are a part of progress, but these decisions should be made with seniors in mind.

"Some seniors may not be comfortable using self-service checkouts because they're not tech savvy, staffed checkouts are all they've known, and they enjoy face-to-face interaction," he says. "Most self-service checkouts don't accept cash (still used by many seniors), and this is another reason why seniors should be considered."

Will we ever see a world with more manned checkouts again? It doesn't feel likely, but the more we choose to let the professionals do their jobs, the more manned checkouts there will be.

Do you have a story tip? Email:

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.