If recent news reports are to be believed, self-checkout terminals are a failed experiment, and retailers all over the world are beginning to pull them out of their stores.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for a technology that grocers have come to rely on over the past few years?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news reports of self-checkout’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Self-checkout machines aren’t going anywhere. In fact, judging from conversations I’ve had with industry experts in recent weeks, as well as from our reporting and observations at recent trade shows, retailers’ reliance on the technology is actually growing.

Reports have pointed to recent small-scale shifts at Walmart and Target and to U.K. retailer Booths’ recent decision to boot self-checkout machines from its stores. But plenty of other retailers have lately increased their reliance on the devices. Amazon Fresh stores are adding the checkout kiosks into their refreshed locations, while Wegmans’ newly opened Manhattan supermarket has a supersized self-checkout section with about three dozen of the machines — which is pretty impressive, given the short leash Wegmans tends to give checkout tech.

The same trend applies if you look abroad. The Turkish chain Migros has had self-checkout kiosks in its stores for more than 15 years and doesn’t plan on scaling back, Mustafa Bartin, CEO of Migros Retail Turkey, told me in a recent message. Sebastian Rennack, an analyst with Aletos Advisory in Germany, visited retailers in more than 12 European countries in the past year and said he saw an increased investment in self-checkout, not a pullback.

Self checkout machine

Retailers in the U.S. and abroad are increasing their investment in self-checkout machines.

Permission granted by Sebastian Rennack


The fact that self-checkouts are thriving amid a public backlash speaks to the operational upsides they offer for retailers, namely labor efficiency and cost savings. Despite many consumers’ complaints about their desire to check out with an actual human worker, retailers have struggled to find those humans to work their front ends. 

Self-checkout machines also help retailers process more shoppers without having to pay more people to do that work. At a time when retailers are looking to cut costs wherever they can and get the most out of their employees in a low-margin business, that’s an enticing proposition.

Self-service is sweeping across other industries. Walk into just about any McDonald’s these days and you’ll be greeted by a digital kiosk that handles ordering and payment. Convenience stores are also rapidly adding self-checkout kiosks right now because they’re struggling to find people to work inside their stores, Toby Awalt, vice president of marketing with self-checkout technology firm Mashgin, told me.

That all said, self-checkout is an evolving technology that has legitimate flaws. In many stores, the only thing stopping people from swiping items without scanning is a single employee who’s trying to watch over numerous terminals and may not even have a clear view of them. Buying age-restricted items or produce at self-checkout feels as tedious as going through security at the airport. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like when those product scales malfunction.

Self-checkout is an imperfect technology that got rolled out to shoppers quickly in order to paper over retailers’ operational challenges. While many other retail technologies get improved upon through closed-door testing and careful scaling, self-checkout is going through these growing pains in front of hundreds of millions of consumers.

Grocers need to recognize the limitations of self-checkout and do as much as they can to offset them. They also need to stay on top of the latest innovations that can help improve the user experience and cut down on shrink.

To that end, here are a few thoughts on the best practices retailers are implementing — and should implement — as they wrestle with this technology.

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