By John Gibb

You have finished selecting your items at one of our larger local stores. You head to the front of the store and you’re faced with a choice. Should you proceed to the traditional checkout counter staffed by a live cashier or go to the self-checkout area? Staff may even invite you to pay without involving another person. Customers at some stores are told that the traditional checkout is for cash purchases only. What choice do you make and what determines your choice?

Some choices appear to be taken away from us, but are they really? Many readers will recall that our neighbourhood was served by two friendly, family-run hardware stores not all that long ago. There was one in Highland Creek and one at Port Union and Lawrence. Both disappeared mysteriously. Or did they? Maybe it had something to do with the arrival of the Home Depot big-box store at Sheppard and Morningside. The cause and effect was obvious. Our choice to shop there closed our local hardware stores. This was not unexpected as Home Depot was counting on it!

What about the mysterious disappearance of a number of friendly faces at our Ravine Park Plaza? Where are the part-time students? Aren’t staff reassigned? Who are we kidding here? It’s not so mysterious after all. These retailers counted on our cooperation and compliance. They assumed we wouldn’t question their solution to a deliberately created problem: longer lines at fewer staffed checkouts.

In The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy,  Christopher K. Andrews wrote: “By automating labour, self-checkouts may allow businesses to replace cashiers with machines, and thus shed significant labour costs … self-checkout manufacturers’ websites readily acknowledge their savings in labour-related costs; one website states that ‘self-checkout…allows stores to cut labour costs, which account for more than 90 percent of the costs associated with running the front end of a retail store.’ A four-station, one-attendant configuration is claimed to save at least one hundred and fifty labour hours a week…” Mention of any benefits to the customer is noticeably absent.

In 2018, a Canadian Press story reported that “Metro Inc. will soon test scan-and-go technology and increase the number of self-checkout machines in its grocery stores as it looks to offset higher minimum wages in Ontario and Quebec.” Installations soared opportunistically during COVID.

Regarding Shoppers Drug Mart, CBC reported in 2021 that “The chain’s parent company, Loblaw Companies Ltd., did not respond to questions about whether the introduction of self-checkout machines at Shoppers has resulted in any job losses.” They did admit, however, that Shoppers customers may pay by cash or credit at the staffed checkout counter.

Fully self-serve and cashless retail is already being tested in the U.S. But unlimited automation does not have to be inevitable. All that is needed is for us to become and remain more conscious and mindful as consumers. Let’s imagine that it is our own employment that is being threatened solely to boost the corporate bottom line.

We have the collective ability to vote with our feet and head straight to the checkout staffed by a real live person. Not only will we have the chance to interact with another human, especially important for us seniors, but we’ll see some of our neighbours rehired.