The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget the haters. Grocery self-checkout is awesome.

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Longtime Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who recently took his talents to the Wall Street Journal, leans pro-robot. He likes ATMs over the old bank tellers, he wrote Tuesday, and finds airline kiosks easier to deal with than flight attendants.

At grocery store self-checkout stands, though, he draws the line.

They work well enough in a pinch—when you want to check out just a handful of items, when you don't have much produce, when you aren't loaded down with coupons. But for any standard order, they're a big pain. Perversely, then, self-checkout machines' shortcomings are their best feature: because they're useless for most orders, their lines are shorter, making the machines seem faster than humans. ...
Supermarket checkout—a low-wage job that doesn't require much training—sounds like it should be similarly vulnerable to robotic invasion. But it turns out that checking out groceries requires just enough mental-processing skills to be a prohibitive challenge for computers. In that way, supermarket checkout represents a class of jobs that computers can't yet match because, for now, they're just not very good substituting key human abilities.

Accomplishing part of a job well, however, is exactly what robots should be around to do. Let me explain.

For being such a lousy substitute for human labor, automated checkout systems have certainly proven popular. According to the Food Marketing Institute, 6 percent of U.S. supermarkets offered self-checkout lanes in 1999, and by 2007, 95 percent had them. Self-checkout machines are a good financial investment, paying back their $30,000 to $60,000 sticker price fairly quickly, and generating pure savings on wages after that.

But they've far from replaced human cashiers entirely. Last year, self-checkout machines accounted for between 12 and 30 percent of sales. And there are actually more grocery store cashiers in America now than there were a decade ago -- 831,770, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 824,050 a decade ago.

So how have these robots affected the grocery store economy? According to supermarket consultant Jim Hertel, stores don't achieve huge labor savings from their self-checkout lanes. Cashiers who are no longer needed tend to be given other tasks, like keeping aisles tidy. And there will always be checkers around to help people with shopping carts piled high with a month's worth of food for a house full of teenagers, for whom a professional cashier is more efficient.

"Especially in a world where supermarkets feel like they're competing with a lot of other places for that large stock-up trip, they don't want to do anything to put that at risk," Hertel says. (The ones who do lose out are magazine publishers, since fewer people pick them up while waiting in interminable lines.)

And here's the thing about the stocker-uppers: Just as express lanes processed low-volume shoppers faster, so, too, will self-checkout lanes absorb people who prefer them, leaving the human checkers more available for people with lots of items.

If we're dealing in first-person experiences here, I prefer checking out my own stuff. I'm a single urban dweller who picks up a few routine items several times a week on my bike, and can now deal with the machine at my neighborhood Giant without even thinking. And it seems my fellow shoppers are getting the hang of the system, too: Since self-checkout was introduced a few years ago, even the longest line moves very quickly (none of the self-checkout systems the Post tried in 2010 took longer than two minutes either).

That's the role robots should play in commercial environments going forward: Supplementing human labor when it makes sense, making the whole system more efficient by letting people have the kinds of retail experiences they prefer.

Which isn't to say that checkout systems couldn't get better. I look forward to the day when I can wave a head of broccoli in front of a scanner and it will tell me how much it costs (which may not be so far in the future). A study out this year from the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Sciences found that customers' satisfaction correlates with the service quality of the checkout machine, which after all is only 15 years into its development.

But it also found that younger people tend to like the automated experience more than older people -- which would seem to suggest that the problem isn't the robots, it's us.