Self checkout shows how much human work goes into 'automation'

Self-checkout machines are often a last resort for shoppers, but stores keep pushing them. Researchers Madeleine Clare Elish and Alexandra Mateescu tell us about their report, AI in Context: The Labor of Integrating New Technologies, and how self checkout machines affect grocery workers.

'Smoothing over technology's rough edges.' The human labour in so-called self checkouts.

Self checkouts: timesaver or time waster? (Adam Killick/CBC)

This story was originally published on March 29, 2019.

For some shoppers, the self-checkout lane is a convenient way to speed up the process of paying for purchases.

For others, it's quite the opposite, as the machine unhelpfully beeps at them when they try to scan a bunch of kale.

However you feel about self checkouts, it would seem that they're here to stay—and some stores are apparently pushing their customers to use them.

Employees at Shoppers Drug Mart have even been directed to ask customers to use the self-checkout kiosks instead of human-staffed lanes, according to recent reporting by CBC News.

Alexandra Mateescu and Madeleine Clare Elish have taken a hard look at the effect of self-checkouts on retail employees, and they've found that the "self" part of the checkout is often a misnomer. The machines frequently require a person for "smoothing over technology's rough edges," Elish told Spark host Nora Young.
Alexandra Mateescu (Data & Society)

Usually, at least one employee needs to be available to help customers who are puzzled about how to scan a particular item.

"We compare it to sort of the role of a traffic officer at a busy intersection," Mateescu said. "You're basically reacting to a whole lot of social cues…. They have a confused look on their face and you know quickly to step in, or when to do that," she said.

In a recent research paper, partially based on interviews with grocery store workers in the Los Angeles area, Mateescu and Elish found that self checkouts require a lot of human intervention, often involving skills that cashiers aren't necessarily trained to do.
Madeleine Clare Elish (Data & Society)

In some cases, employees were fixing the machines themselves on the fly in order to keep them operating. And often, because the machines can get frustrating for shoppers, they required the supervision of senior employees well versed in diffusing anger.

"There were a few people that we interviewed that learned to do basic mechanical repairs, including this one guy who had previously had a career repairing office equipment. He used those skills to do things like getting the bills unstuck from the machines," Mateescu said.

So far, the widespread use of the machines hasn't put significant numbers of cashiers out of work, the researchers said.

However, as checkout-free concept stores like Amazon's Go move into the mainstream, that may change.

"What we need to focus on is the quality and the experience of the jobs that remain, as opposed to just focusing on this dichotomy of job or no job," Elish said.


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