Are Self-Service Checkouts On The Way Out?

Are Self-Service Checkouts On The Way Out?

The past few years have seen self-service checkouts become a visible feature of the Australian retail landscape, with major supermarkets (Woolworths and Coles) and chain stores (Big W, Kmart and IKEA) all enthusiastically embracing self-scanning. However, supermarkets at least are now cutting back on the use of self-service in urban areas.

Picture by Jaap Stronks

The Australian Financial Review reported this week that both Woolworths and Coles are cutting back on self-service checkouts in some inner-city supermarkets, finding that it’s still faster and cheaper to employ register operators. Often this takes the form of a single queue system served by multiple registers.

“Without a doubt people love them because they love the feeling of being in control,” a Woolworths spokesperson told the paper. “But they don’t work in every environment.” That said, the rollouts continue. Woolworths has 2000 self-service checkouts in 400 stores (about half its network); Coles has 3000 in 350 stores.

I’m a big fan of self-service checkouts, and I’ll inevitably choose them if they’re an available option. But I also shop without a car, which means I’m rarely making a big purchase. If I had an entire trolley full, I’d save myself and others the trouble and head to a checkout line.

Self-service has other benefits too: it can be a handy way of getting rid of excess coins, and there are plenty of strategies you can employ to use them more efficiently. But I know many people who go out of their way to avoid them, either because they mistrust the technology, because they figure it improves employment or because they just find a checkout operator faster. What’s your reaction?


  • On the way out? That’s news to me. Seem to be more and more of them actually.

    However, you’d be mad (and a bit selfish) to try and go through one with a full trolley. The register operators are much faster and better at scanning than you- let them do it rather than hold up everyone else.

    As an ex-register operator myself (well, I called myself a ‘register rooster’ rather than the more common checkout chic) watching people scan their own items is often like a touch-typist watching a two finger typist hunt for keys.

      • That then must be why Woolies has on average 5 per store but Coles has well on the way to double at 8.6 per store. This also means that Coles has half as many full service check-out-chicks/chaps to serve trolley pushing customers!

        And judging by the comments below, you are therefore twice as likely to be held up at a Coles self-serve checkout than a Woolies waiting for almost double the number of people scanning their overflowing trolleys. They were intended to be convenient for the 15 items or less basket people!

        A good check-out-chick/chap can scan at 15 items/minute including bagging, payment, price checks and chat. A novice will do about 5 to 8. How fast do you think you can scan your trolley at a self serve checkout given you are without the conveyor and without the time saved when the customer loads the belt for the operator?

        Coles have got it so wrong and have a long and expensive way to backpedal!

      • The fact that you shop at Aldi, who have around 8% of market share, combined with IGA/independents, which make up another ~25% of the market, indicates that the existence of the ‘duopoly’ people whine about is a pretty tenuous proposition.

    • I think the reason the self-checkouts are slower isnt because people cant operate them as fast as a ‘checkout chic’ but because the anti theft measures built in prevent you from scanning the next item within a certain period of the last, while it weighs it and makes sure you arent stealing.

      • I used the scanner this morning. I’ve been requested to “check item weight” after scanning tinned food. The whole process stops then an attendant comes over looks at the screen then looks in the bag to make sure you haven’t stolen anything-don’t forget the overhead cameras too. They want you to use them but they don’t want you to use them-I’m starting to hate the damn things.

      • I took the pills and fronted up again. I had 3 items-no problems. The mandatory check out supervision under paid worker was trying to be impartial. I got thtough- but I still needed 3 bottles of Carlton Draught to be on the safe side. A calamity in progress-2B sure-take care.

  • They need a solution for a full trolley, a larger packing area.
    Rather than squeeze 6-8 checkouts into the space previously occupied by two regular check-out lanes, maybe just go with 2-3 selfserve check-outs?

  • I want to physically hurt people who go through self serve checkouts with trolleys – they definitely should be baskets only, unless the store is completely dead.
    I’d be bothered if the number of self serve checkouts went down – I always use them (except for the 1 time every 2 or 3 months where I use a trolley).

    • After trying to buy one thing at a Big W self serve checkout on Monday and it taking 30 mins due to the system freaking out and needing (overly occupied) attendants there to help, I was extremely tempted to test the alarm system and just walk out with my stick mixer without paying.

    • Mate works at Woolies and a guy walked through with a trolley load of items, paid for about 8 of them, then tried to leave. He is one of the guys that sits there until you need help and stopped him, asked to check his receipt, brought him back in the store and then called the cops. Got arrested for theft.

  • i hope not its soo much quicker to run in and get out using those machines and will be even more so when they put paywave eftpos in

    surely the amount they save by having 1 worker for the 12 or so machines far outweighs the repair and upkeep costs

    • I know that Coles has paywave, its not obvious but when you chose the credit card option it does have the paywave symbol on the screen (at least at my local), and i used it when my debit card wasnt working for some reason..

        • The Paywave/Paypass not being rolled out quickly is simple – the stores pay a fee when someone uses credit, and Woolies and Coles are part of the EFTPOS consortium, which doesn’t cost them when you use debit. It’s the reason why Woolies does not let you use the credit option when you use a debit card.

        • coles does have the function for cashout in all self severs max amount is $100.00 min $20.00
          paywave is a credit function you can not get cashout with credit how ever you try any where., unless you use a ATM which would cost ya big time. If you use use the paywave even if you select the debit option on the screen paywave will take over thus using your credit account. = no cash out.

  • I personally dislike using self-service checkouts, I find them clunking, confusing and annoying. My wife, on the other hand has no problem using them and thinks I’m an idiot for choosing to wait longer to be served by a person. However, we both agreed that a self-service checkout we used in France that had no English option (and our french is pretty darn sketchy) was much easier, more intuitive and altogether less painful than using woolies’ machines where we could actually read the instructions.

  • The technology isn’t fit for purpose yet. I’ve used them dozens of times and I’ve never yet once been able to get all the way through the transaction without at least one human intervention – usually two or three because the scales are wonky or they can’t cope with a backpack or some other minutia.

    I also had to abandon a sale once at K-mart when I was buying a bench – I scanned it using the hand-held laser, but it wanted to weigh the bloody thing and I wrenched my back so badly twisting it from the trolley to the scale that I couldn’t carry it home.

    Fix the tech so that it’s as quick to use the self-check-out as it is to have it done manually and the machines might be worth using. But right now? Too early.

    • I find if an item doesnt register properly, i pick the item out and put it back, and it works 90% of the time.

      For the large items they usually have a button that says something like “I don’t want to bag this item” yeah you might have to wait for an operator to validate your buy but its better than wrenching you back.

    • ” I scanned it using the hand-held laser, but it wanted to weigh the bloody thing and I wrenched my back so badly twisting it from the trolley to the scale that I couldn’t carry it home.”

      This isn’t a problem with the technology. This is a software issue and I’ve seen some pretty horrible software used in these systems.

    • if you wait and read the screen it will tell you do you too bag that item you hit the message which means you can leave it in the trolley … its all about ready the messages….

  • I’m old fashioned and much rather be served by a person, than a machine, then if there are any concerns, they are able to assist. It’s also much more friendly.

  • What we need is to move away from the old, antiquated system of scanning barcodes and UPCs and switch to RFID tags. Imagine piling everything into a cart, bagging the groceries as you shop and all the while, the trolley knows what is in it and displays a running total. At the end, you simply pass the trolley through the check-out area – now, just a payment area – and you’re out the door.

    This would reduce the inefficiency and wasted time of having to handle the same product multiple times by 2/3rds. Picking up product and immediately bagging it in the trolley vs. Placing product in trolley, putting the product on the conveyor belt at the register and then bagging it.

    I know there will be people crying, “But what about the poor cashier that will now lose their job?”. To them I say, they’ve already lost their job. Go into any grocery store and where you see 10 registers in place, only 2 of them – if you’re lucky – are actually being used.

    *am a former console jockey.

        • Weight your loose fruits / vegetables in the perishable section and have it print off a RFID tag. They have advanced RFID tech to point where it’s nearly as simple to print a RFID tag in place of an UPC barcode . And if anyone cries, “What about the thieves who won’t either bother printing it out or weight only a portion?” use some of those people that’ll have their cashier jobs lost and move them to the perishable section. Train these kids, have them help the customer when they need it. Have them be the face of the company.

          Coming from the States having 15 years in the business, 3 of which were managing this particular section, I was absolutely shocked at the state of the fruit / vegetables in the grocery stores. Coles, at least the one near me, has improved their perishable section dramatically. It’s iced every day and automatic sprayers keep things crisp they way they should be. But Woolworth’s…it’s as if a hauler backed up to the aisles and just dumped their load where ever it may lie.

          Let the machines do what they’re good at – keeping tallies and math. I made it a point to make sure every customer that came through my doors knew where to find what they were looking for and that the experience was as stress-less as possible because, let’s face it, grocery shopping isn’t exactly the highlight of anyone’s day so let your workforce help make that experience somewhat enjoyable.

          • the quality of coles/woolies is totally dependent on the store and is not representative across the brand. Of course some Coles used to be Bilos, some Woolies used to be Franklins. (remember them?)

          • While I agree with your statement, the inconsistency is a reflection on how the company is run as a whole.

    • at times of the day yes i agree but at that time of the day its not busy….
      the staff the c/outs in the busy times eg mostly from9:30 1:30 — 2:30pm to 7:30 pm after mums takes the kids to school and after…
      but every coles store has a policy and every team member remember this qoute

      SERVE ONE….. WAIT ONE…. CALL ONE … in 2 minutes
      which ,means while you are serving 1 person and one is waiting you must start serving the next person in 2 minutes other wise you must call for help there will never be 3 ppl waiting …unless
      there is no more c./outs to open ….

      • oh and i have been with coles as a check out chick or as my friends call me chickoutchick
        for 27 years and i feel i still will be there for atleast 10 – 15 yet as long as y feet holds out….

  • I like like the concept of self service checkouts, dislike the economic reality (less people employed) and the the reality, poorly implemented and maintained technology.

    The usability differs significantly from one implementation to another, with some being groan-inducing to use. Scanners on some can be hit and miss, and the ones that won’t allow you scan the next item until they register the weight of the scanned item drive me insane (I have never had a machine successfully register me putting a Hot Wheels car in the shopping bag).

    Worst of all? At my local Big W, there is normally only one person on checkout, and only half of the self service checkouts working (the rest having out of order messages stuck to them). This is made worse by the fact that every second person requires assistance due to problems with the machines, and there being only one person in the area to assist.

    I can say for a fact that there’s been times that Big W have lost my money as I’ve walked in, seen the queues for both checkouts, and promptly walked back out and to another shop.

    • Maybe there’s a difference between the states, but here in Perth most of the chains have given up on the detection of items being placed in the bag and just gone back to the honour system of packing. Or at least, that seems to be my experience.

  • The quicker they get rid of them the better….

    like Nick NOT ONCE have I ever utilised them without some form of error… stupid things like “unexpected item in bagging area” when the only things there are the things scanned… scales not working… slow, slow processing…..

    every time it has required a person to come and fix the issue…..the only time I will EVER use them is when I have my young daughter with me, who finds them a “novelty” . I would rather actually interact with a person…

  • Definitely faster to have a real person. I quite often jump over to the express cashier lane at my Woolies and make it through quicker than those stuck in line at the self service lane (quite amusing to see half of the people in the line follow my lead and move over to the cashier lane as well). One of the biggest probems with the self check-out is the MORONS who put their whole shopping trolley through, one very slow item at a time…

  • If there are cashiers who are empty I’ll go to them, otherwise I use the self-serve. I’ve not had many problems with them, just as long as you make sure you do things in the right order. Although I have had a few problems with bringing my own bags occasionally.
    I can’t wait for Calvin’s idea of RFID-enabled trolleys to become a reality. Sadly, trolley theft and vandalism will discourage this kind of idea for quite some time yet.

  • Much prefer a real person. Employment reasons a re a big factor for me, young kids, mums and heaps of other people rely on being able to work at supermarkets. Since the big chains have pretty much successfully killed off the local family owned 7 day supermarket, (along with the 24hour servos/supermarkets), the least they can do is continue to employ australian workers!

    Cheap, profit driven assholes. (I’m sure someone will chide me on a capatalist/consumerism argument, but I’d prefer NOT to have a duopoly, pay a little more for some items and to have more australians in employment than see Woolies and Coles grow even bigger and more profitable)

  • The whole “it takes jobs away from people” argument shits me, it has nothing to do with not wanting to hire people, it is about affordability. One person can monitor 6 or so self serves and serving 6 people ata time, while a single person can only operate 1 normal register and serve one person at a time.

    Also self serve is more for those express buys.

  • Self-serve is great, I can get two or three items through in less than 30s with cash at Coles – at the ‘select payment’ screen just drop in coins and the machine works it out. However the fwits with trolleys at self-serve – get back to the human checkouts.

    • Love to go and use a regular checkout however when there is only one open and the line is ten deep (not an exaggeration at my local Coles) you can bet I’m going to be a PITA and use self service.

      I prefer human checkouts every day of the week, unless I am buying 1 item, it’s just not efficient.

  • I tend to thiknk of the self serve option as a replacement for the old 12 items or less lanes (in my local Coles it was the express lanes that disappeared to make way for the self serve). And for that purpose – i.e. no more than a bag’s worth of groceries, they are OK though like others here I often experience problems with some aspect of the technology (those machines seem to break a lot or fail to scan items or whatever) and there are often only 3 of the 6 available machines working. However the self serve is not useful for many circumstances, including if you’re wanting to add your purchased items to something other than a shopping bag (e.g. I walk everywhere, always have a backpack and often want to add things straight to it but the machines have never been able to cope with that whereas human checkout people manage it quite well).

    But I moved recently and have access to a fantastic supermarket that isn’t coles or woollies and neither does it have self serve – I am loving shopping there and don’t miss the self serve at all

  • Yes technology marches on…… But in this case I don’t want it !
    I pay enough to these miserly resellers who gouge their suppliers and Dammit!
    I want value for my money ! They can bloody well give me some service !
    I would rather spend 5 minutes waiting in line, than be ushered into this self service area
    as I am often requested to do so by well meaning employees
    I just smile and say no thanks.

  • I like them, though I only use them when I’ve got a basket, never a trolley. Kind of like the express lanes. I can bag my groceries how I like, don’t feel bad about handing over a large note/a pile of change, don’t have to go through the flybys/upsell rituals, and there’s usually less of a line. Very rarely have issues. I don’t think supermarkets should go completely self-service but I hope they keep the option.

  • I always use the self-serve checkouts. Rarely have a problem with them. I also use them for full trolleys to. The wife takes items out of the trolley and I scan them, usually quicker than the checkout operators can. Most of the ones at Woolies around here don’t even check that the items are in the bagging area anymore. That alone makes the bagging so much quicker as there is no waiting for the system to “register” whatever I just bought.

    I once had a guy behind me say a few words because I had a full trolley and he had a full basket. I still managed to scan and pay for my full trolley before he finished his full basket.

  • This introvert much prefers taking his basket through the self-serve checkouts rather than carry an awkward conversation with a checkout operator.

  • As an ex-employee of one of the big two, I was told that a percentage was added onto each product to pay for the wages of the checkout staff; as a overhead to profit margins. Through the implementation of the self-serve checkouts there is less of a need for checkout staff yet the product prices have not reduced?!?!

  • I find it halarious all the technophobes trying to justify the real person experience over this (aliebt still infant) tech. I’m sorry bit your telling porkies if you’re saying you have great customer experiences with the 15yo’s at the counter that hardly look at you let alone say anything..

    Also, as far as ‘let’s keep people employed’ that’s the kind of sideways thinking that has kept this country back rather than striving for innovation. Zomg!

  • I hate the small talk, even a “hello, how are you going?”. Yeah, I’m anti social …but even that is too much for me:). Long live self checkouts!

  • I find people who have problem s with the self serve system are people who don’t know when to sit back and read, or don’t know how they work, and get frustrated rather than putting in a few seconds to understand. There needs to be a balance, leave 4 or so self serve for self sufficient (see also: efficient) people, and 2 or so for the nongs.

  • Those self-checkouts are a great way for supermarkets to make more money, not less. I’ve noticed a LOT more pricing errors in my local Woolworths since those checkouts came in. And half the time, the checkout supervisor is not around or tied up with someone else. I either gave to wait ages for her, or give up and pay more than I should.

  • 10 years ago, I was at a Coles store. I was in a hurry. There were only 2 checkouts open, & they were normal checkouts (Not Express). I dumped my ‘cold storage’, on the next counter and walked out, as it was quite a line up. I went to the nearby Woolworths, and they had 3 people on express. I have rarely shopped at this Coles store since.
    The only thing I don’t like about self service, is when 1 or 2 terminals don’t accept ca$h. Especially when you see people lined up at other terminals accepting ca$h, using their Plastic cards for rewards, thinking they are obtaining a bargain (plus 4 cents off a litre) and you are stuck in line.

  • One of the other problems they have is prompting you for your ‘Identity theft’ card. IE Everyday Rewards/Flybuys. Then assuming you are using this as a bank terminal, to withdraw money.

  • i like self serve lanes, makes buying condoms less awkward, which means more people buy and use condoms which means less teenage pregnancy and less abortions.

    so in summary, if you don’t like self serve you are pro-abortion. true story.

  • The single queue for multiple checkouts seems to be the way to go if you’re not going to do self service. That way you’re not punished for getting in the “wrong” line, and you don’t get the zerg rush happening when a new register opens up.

  • I hate these things.
    So many times the computer lady has told me one thing only to be told by the staff to do another! Surely they know their sortware is screwed!
    Example – I’m told by the staff that when the light is green I can remove my bag, but when I do the computer lady tells me to return it. Staff tell me not to return it but rather to press a button on the screen instead. So why am I being told to return it?

    Really, really horrible implementation.

    I also hate that my coles removed 3 of it’s 4 express lanes to make room for self service, THEN, just to froce us to use self service, they rebadged the last express lane as a full lane.

    I avoid that store now.

  • I have grown to love self-service checkouts. Initially I considered they were taking jobs away from teens and others who normally staff the register but all it did was move the express lane operator to a supervising position, seemingly not reducing staff at all. They are also fantastic for getting rid of loose coins, especially that growing 5 cent collection.

    About the only issue I have is buying loose vegetables when I need to sing the alphabet song as I look for Ginger 😛

  • Personally, I hate them. There always, always seems to be a fault, no matter which shop you’re in, and an operator has to unfreeze the system. I much prefer a manned cash register.

  • I actually really like the single queue-multiple check-out setups at big w and target. Sometimes the line looks really long, but can move fast enough with enough operators. Besides, counting the number of people ahead of me and size of their trolley vs number of operators and how fast they’re working keeps me entertained trying to workout the probability of getting the cutest/hottest checkout chick.

  • The self service waits are almost always longer than those for the old-fashioned checkouts for some reason when I visit. If there’s an empty one ready and waiting, I’ll take it, but unlike a regular checkout, there is no upper limit to how long the customers in front of you will take.

  • I hate self service checkouts – never use them. They (literally) mean I’m doing the work of the checkout people.
    I much prefer to just wait while someone else does it for me.

  • I use them about 90% of the time. I’m a checkout operator and don’t really care about this “less jobs” thing. My store is always busy, and always has a tonne of staff on checkouts.
    I find them more convenient and faster for small orders. I figure that makes up for the dopes that think they’re bad and choose to line up instead.

  • I tried the self service once, and never will again. Seams they only accept some forms of Aussie legal tender and not others. Took 15 minutes to buy a can of coke, and argue with the supervisor, because of a $5 coin (all i had on me at the time, because I had left my wallet in the car).

    • So, because you used a coin that is released in very limited numbers, specifically for commemorative purposes, and at a price significantly higher then face value, the whole system is flawed and should never be used?

      Good luck finding *any* machine in Australia that will accept it, and even good luck finding a human that will accept it (especially considering they’re not under any legal obligation to accept that money). I’ve personally never seen one, and they’re only mentioned in press releases if you start digging. The “coin designs” section doesn’t even have a $5 coin page.

  • Staffed checkouts can be operated much more efficiently than they are at Woolies and Coles. See ALDI. The combination of well designed checkouts (i.e. a smooth table), a very fast barcode scanner with the glass kept clean and large barcodes on products, a much longer automatic conveyer belt, better staff training, and a packing bench, means that you can easily double or even triple the typical Woolies/Coles speed.

    Self serve checkouts are slow, but at least then I’m busy and don’t have to stand there watching them scan slowly thinking “gee, I wish I could go to ALDI instead…” (ALDI are not operating where I live).

  • I am not a Luddite but I don’t use self serve checkouts. Employment where I live is difficult to find so I only use humans at the checkout. I find checkout operators are faster anyway. Maybe the day will come when humans are not needed by the androids that will run our factories, warehouses and offices. That might not be a bad thing but for now I’ll avoid these labour replacing devices.

  • In Japan you get 5% off for using self-serve. In Australia all you do is prop up Colesworth’s profits and help do someone out of a job. I reckon people who use self-service checkouts should be registered and when it comes time for their own employer to lay people off they sack these people first.

  • When I was growing up you had to wait in line to be served at the bank, supermarket, post office, etc… and you learnt how to communicate with other people. Now that young people don’t need to talk to others anymore because they can do everything either online or by using a machine, they don’t know how to deal with other people, so instead of communicating with other people they bash the crap out of them !!! These machines are part of what is wrong with today’s lawless youth. These machines are EVIL !! ! Go ahead and keep using them if you must, but I will ALWAYS use checkouts with people who ask me how I am, even if they don’t really want to know.

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