The supermarket self-checkout as an exemplar of automation

The introduction of the supermarket self-checkout promised increased convenience for customers, eliminating lengthy queues particularly for those who were only buying a basket full of items. I’ve been thinking about this in the last few weeks because my local supermarket Morrisons, which has visibly reduced staffing levels since its take over by a private equity firm, increasingly leaves customers waiting for uncomfortably long periods of time if you are purchasing anything (including, weirdly, non-alcoholic beer) which requires a staff member to authorise the purchase.

The expansion of the self-checkouts has gone hand-in-hand with a reduction of human staffed tills, creating much longer waits than used to be the case compounded by the fact it’s almost exclusively people with full trolleys who now use them. The number of self-checkouts monitored by a single person has expanded hugely during this time which means that if there’s anything unusual which requires their intervention (e.g. going onto the shop floor to resolve an issue) a huge backlog inevitably builds up. The putatively labour saving device is used by the firm as an excuse to push down labour costs even further, creating a horrible experience for the palpably stressed staff and longer waits for customers. The generous provision of human support for automation in the early years has been withdrawn once customers are habituated, alongside mounting costs to choosing the human-staffed tills which compounds that habit.

As we stand on the cusp of a ‘new age of automation’ facilitated by generative AI, we should scrutinise recent waves of automation and how they’ve unfolded over time. Technology is always implemented in a socio-economic context and accounts of automation which don’t grapple with political economy are actively ideological in their veilling of real world impacts of the technology they are (usually) advocating.

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