Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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10 Apr 2014

Why I despise self checkouts with a rare and unbridled passion


It’s time for a rant about SACAT.  “About what?” you might most reasonably cry.  ‘Semi Attended Customer Activated Terminals’, that’s what.  In plain English, it’s those self checkout things that are taking over shops up and down the land.  In 2008 there were 92,600 such units in use worldwide, by the end of this year it is expected to top 430,000.  In the UK, 32 million shoppers now use them every week, over one third of Tesco’s store transactions every week are self checkout. I recently went to WHSmith at St Panchras station in London, the first shop I’ve been into that is 100% self checkout.  No staff.  I turned around and walked back out again.  

It’s bad enough on the occasions when I visit my local Co-operative store, who have now just two tills with actual human beings.  The rest is all self-checkout.  According to Geoffrey Barraclough of BT Expedite, who installed the system in the WHSmith store at Kings Cross, such systems are great because because they:

Enabl(e) shoppers to pay for goods quickly by making more till points available is a proven means for retailers to help boost footfall, service and sales levels”.  

self checkout

That may be the case, but surely the main reason is that they need to employ less staff and thereby make more profit?  Whenever I go into a shop which has self-checkout, I refuse to use it.  I make a point of telling whoever is at the till that I am refusing to use it because I don’t want even more staff to lose their jobs.  It’s a solidarity thing.  But when I go to a shop that doesn’t even give you the choice, sorry, they just lost a customer.  

A few years ago I did a series of oral history interviews with people, asking for their memories of Totnes in the 1940s and 50s.  One woman told me of her experience of doing the week’s shopping: 

I used to go to the grocer’s and I could sit down, lovely.  They’d go through your list and say yes, yes, we’ve got some new whatever it is, would you like to taste some, you’d have a little snippet of cheese or something, great, yes, we’ll have that.  Now we’ve got a tin of broken biscuits, but they’re not too bad, half price you see, would you like them? As soon as you put a biscuit in your mouth its broken isn’t it?!  Then they’d say “now Mrs Langford you’re going to the butchers yes yes and going to get some fish?  Yes yes, and paraffin?  Yes yes, and they used to say to me now bring any parcels in, we’ll put it in the box with your groceries, and bring the lot up for you.  And they did you see.  

When I go shopping, I want to interact with people.  Even the act of popping in to buy a newspaper involves a few words, a “how you doing?” or even just a “thanks”.  It’s interaction, it’s communication, it’s the glue that sticks us together.  A study in the US looking at why people use farmers markets found that ‘social interaction’ was one of the key reasons, people who shopped there having 10 times more conversations than people shopping in supermarkets.  It quoted one shopper as saying: 

“You end up talking a lot more to other people than you do in a grocery store.  I mean, typically you go to the grocery store and you don’t talk to anyone.  Even the checkout people, I mean now you don’t even need to see the checkout person, you can just go through the automated line”.

SACATAnd if I’m checking myself out, I am doing the shop’s business for them.  Not content with assaulting high streets with out-of-town shops, and then moving onto those self same declining high streets to add “vibrancy” to them, they have now, with most of the opposition neutralised (97% of all UK groceries are now sold through just 8,000 supermarket outlets), they are getting us to do the checking out for them!  What next?  Stacking the shelves?  Sweeping the floor on our way out?  Perhaps giving the bathrooms a lick of paint?

We wouldn’t expect to do those things unpaid, so why doing the check out?  It’s not as though they offer you a choice whereby if you check yourself out they give you a few percent off your bill.  

Of course, many people might say “actually Hopkins I rather like going shopping and not having to talk to anyone”, but for me that’s tragic.  Think forward.  Imagine if we get to the stage where every business, in order to remain competitive with the staff-less chain stores, installs self checkouts?  Imagine the day when you can do all your week’s shopping without ever speaking to anyone.  Something is lost, something as fundamental to our wellbeing as being able to hear the birdsong on a Spring morning.  As hearing the sound of children playing.  Civility, community, humanity, all start to unravel.  


So I say “no more!”  Shun the soul-less cash extracting electronic leeches!  Refuse to spend any money unless a human being is involved!  Turn around, walk out and walk on.  The kind of world we want our children to inherit is being shaped by the choices and the decisions we make today every time we go shopping.  Choose community and people and conversation over blatant money-grabbing and unemployment generation.

Or even better, you might use them for a month or so, keep a note of how much time you spend operating their checkout system, and send them a bill for your time, charging them the Living Wage for your time (which is, by the way, £8.80 in London and £7.65 an hour elsewhere).  Let’s see how they like that. 

I’ll leave the final word to the great Jonathan Richman who, in four minutes and forty five seconds puts it far better than I can: