LONDON – When it comes to grocery shopping, there seem to be two kinds of people in this world: those who prefer self-checkout, and those who prefer interaction with a human.
Booths, a small chain that has sold groceries in northern England since 1847, has decided its customers belong to the latter category and announced this week that it will be getting rid of the self-checkouts in all but two of its 28 stores. It is bucking a trend that has remade retail shopping around the world over the last 20 years.
Bleep. Bleep. Bleep.
When everything goes right, it can be the quickest way out of a store: Stack your groceries, swipe a credit card, bag them, move on. The whole thing should be over in a matter of minutes.
But that’s not always the reality. The machine doesn’t recognize your spaghetti. You clicked the picture of a zucchini on the screen, but what you have in your basket is a cucumber. And buying alcohol or medicine still means you have to wait for a store worker to come over.
Unknown items in the bagging area.
“There’s always a problem,” Sandra Abittan said as she walked out of a local Tesco supermarket in northwest London on Friday, noting that she often has to wait for assistance when using a self-checkout.
But she said she usually still chooses them, because she finds their lines tend to be shorter.
No warm welcome from machines.
Self-checkouts have been on the rise around the world for the last 20 years. Many chains expanded their use during the height of the pandemic, when minimizing human contact was especially important. But Booths isn’t alone in rethinking the automated revolution: In September, Walmart told Insider that it would remove the lanes from a handful of stores, although it did not say why.
In 2016, a study of retailers in the United States, Britain and other European countries found that retailers with self-service lanes and apps had a loss rate of about 4%, more than double the industry average, with researchers saying self-checkout lanes tempted shoppers to act in ways they normally would not and made theft less detectable.
Booths, which has about 3,000 employees, said in a statement that having its employees interacting with customers provides for a better experience. “We have based this not only on what we feel is the right thing to do but also having received feedback from our customers,” the company said. “Delighting customers with our warm northern welcome is part of our DNA.”
Can humans and machines peacefully coexist?
At the Tesco in northwest London during lunchtime Friday, most people seemed to choose the self-checkout option, largely because the line was indeed shorter than the one for human-run cash registers. (One customer said he chose the human line because he was buying his items in cash.)
But removing self-checkouts altogether, as Booths announced it will do, would be a “bad idea,” Abittan said.
She had used the self-checkout to avoid waiting in line, and everything had gone smoothly.
“I had no problems,” she said. “For once.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.