I can still remember my first encounter with self-checkout machines, at the Sainsbury’s near Angel. I thought they were great, that they’d change the world. And they did, I guess – just not in a good way.
Back then this Sainsbury’s was the only serious supermarket in the area so it got pretty busy. Weekday evenings were so crowded that shoppers unable to cope with the queues would dump their baskets and storm out enraged to the point of tears, while a large clock on the wall reminded the rest of us just how much of our lives were being wasted there beneath the bright supermarket lights. It was hard to handle.
Maybe the horror of shopping at this branch was why it became a trial site for self-service checkout machines. Initially, though, they seemed to make matters worse. Shoppers feared these new devices so piled into the other lanes, making the existing queues longer. Sainsbury’s responded by forming a kind of evangelism team who would lure people away from the queue and into the glorious new world of the self-checkout. Gradually they chipped away at our resistance to change.
Me, I didn’t take much convincing. After my first try I was hooked. I particularly loved how they repelled other shoppers. For some time the self-checkout machines, untroubled by the masses, offered we who understood them an opportunity to escape Sainsbury’s early and enjoy our lives.
Eventually the appeal of the self-checkout machines spread beyond the early adopters. The Sainsbury’s evangelists spent less time frogmarching shoppers to the machines and adopted a peacetime role offering support to willing users. The machines had been accepted; they had gone mainstream, which meant they had their own queues and no longer represented a queue-free exit from supermarkets. The golden age was at an end.
One major benefit remained, however: the avoidance of conversation. Londoners famously like to minimise interactions with strangers. Think how rare it is for anyone to greet bus drivers nowadays: the only interaction is between our proffered cards and the businesslike beep of the Oyster machine. The self-checkout appeals to the same tendency. It avoids conversation about what we’re buying, the weather, not wanting a bag for that single item in our basket. Like the Oyster reader, the self-checkout wants nothing from us but a proffered object and gives nothing back but a businesslike beep. It satisfies our yearning for the impersonal.
Along with many others I embraced the alienating aspect of the experience. Even in empty supermarkets with vacant manned tills I would veer towards the machine rather than the human. I was glad for the choice and thought it was the way of the future. But I now realise I was wrong.
I recently moved house and now live near a Tesco and a Sainsbury’s where the self-checkout has become central to the routine of shopping rather than an auxiliary exit lane for the anti-social and technically adept. Adoption is so widespread there that the early days of the technology seem like a distant era; the fear and confusion with which we once approached those machines is a behavioural relic, like the firm-jawed way Victorians once posed for photographs.
No-one needs help any more, apart from when the machine actually breaks. Grandmothers and schoolkids alike process their shopping like seasoned professionals. The dwindling human staff linger unoccupied, a legacy technology, needed only for fetching cigarettes or to green-light alcohol purchases.
I don’t like it. It wasn’t so bad when only a few people used self-checkout, but when everyone does it feels faintly dystopian, like airport security or Argos. In the queue we don’t know where to look. We certainly can’t rest our gaze on the bored staff – they inspire too much guilt, because deep down we all know that by choosing the self-checkout lane we’re telling them they aren’t needed. We’re all dehumanised. The worst thing about it is the broken contract, the polluted relationship between customers and staff, how we now occupy the same space but have nothing to do with one another.
So every now and again, when given the choice, I opt for the checkout with the human being behind it. The self-checkout still has its place if we want to leave a supermarket quickly – but if we want to change the world, let’s do something else instead.