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Coles and Woolworths customers ‘working for free’ in self-checkout ‘fail’

"They haven't saved stores money, they're not faster or more convenient.”

Supermarket self-serve checkouts have failed Australian customers and simply have them “doing work for free” for the big retail chains.

That’s according to associate professor and chair of sociology at Drew University in New Jersey, Chris Andrews, who has questioned the value of automated, and often frustrating, till services that now dominate big retailers, like Woolworths and Coles.

“They haven't lived up to their promise, they haven't saved stores money, they're not faster or more convenient,” the author of Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy told 3AW.

Composite image of a Coles self-checkout and a screenshot of a notification of a bad scan.
Professor Andrews said self checkouts were not faster or more convenient. (Source: Getty/Facebook) (Getty/Facebook)

Do you have a story? Contact belinda.grantgeary@yahooinc.com

“When we originally designed the modern supermarket, the premise was if consumers did more of the work, the stores would offer them a discount on food. But for consumers today, self checkout doesn't really offer any sort of economic incentive. It just invites you to do work for free for the supermarket.”

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Andrews warned the practice was not limited to supermarkets, and claimed hotels, airlines and other retailers see customers as “the next frontier of not even cheap, but free labor for them”, which would slash their bottom line.

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US superstore Walmart and UK grocery chain Booths are among retailers rolling back the number of self-serve checkouts after listening to customer feedback that they are “slow, unreliable and impersonal”.

Self-serve checkouts have also been blamed in part for a rise in theft, and contributing to cost of living pressures and consumer resentment about price gouging (now subject of a government review).

According to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last year, there was a 17 per cent increase in retail theft, while The Australian Retail Association has claimed a “steady increase” in shoplifting is costing the industry more than $9 billion a year.

Composite image of a Coles worker watching self-checkouts and an aerial view of a customer.
Self-checkouts have been blamed for a rise in theft. (Source: Channel Nine) (Channel Nine)

The impact on supermarkets (Coles and Woolworths both have admitted shoplifting impacted their bottom line last year) has led to the introduction of a raft of new measures, including artificial intelligence and high-tech cameras at self-serve checkouts, and gates that won’t open if sensors deem you’ve stolen.

The move will stop some consumers from stealing, but has damaged the reputation of retailers who leave shoppers feeling “watched” with “no out”, UNSW Business School professor Nitika Garg told Yahoo Finance.

More than one in 10 Aussies - 2.4 million people - admitted to stealing in the past year as they reached financial breaking point, while about 5 per cent of Aussies confessed to stealing items at the supermarket self-checkout, the Finder survey found.

Supermarket automation has also not led to a reduction in jobs, with checkout positions being funneled into different parts of the business. Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci addressed the issue in an email to customers last year.

“Self-service check-outs and the perception that this results in a reduction in team members in-store is a passionate dinner table topic in our house,” he wrote.

“The fact is, we employ more people than ever before and, with the popularity of online ordering, this year we’ve hired 5,500 personal shoppers, so there’s more jobs at Woolies, not less.”

So, if self-serve can be slower, doesn’t result in reduction in business costs through staffing, and has an indirect impact on customer satisfaction and theft, why would supermarkets keep them?

Coles and Woolworths told Yahoo News self-service was overwhelmingly the checkout of choice for most Australians. More than two in three customers choose self-serve at Coles. A spokesperson said they offered “convenience and efficiency”.

“Over the past year, we have seen greater customer satisfaction and uptake in our self-service options,” they said.

Woolworths agreed, also noting there were always staffed checkout options available for customers who preferred that method.

“Our supermarkets employ more team members than ever before as we expand to cater to a range of different shopping needs,” a spokesperson said. “From rapid grocery delivery, to the traditional in-store experience, as well as other convenient options like Direct to Boot.”

Andrews said the future of self-serve would likely depend on customers.

“In a competitive market, customers get to vote with their pocketbooks and so a lot of this will be up to consumers to decide,” he said.

“If you're willing and able to pay more, you'll be able to get in-person human service but, for those looking for low prices and discounts, you'll be expected to take on more of the work.”

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