Touch-screen payment kiosks are clearly the way of the future—but do they actually expedite your retail experience? We put them to the test.
By now, the advent of store self-checkouts is pretty much complete. From Canadian Tire to Loblaws, Ikea to the Toronto Public Library, there the kiosks stand, quietly waiting for you to scan, swipe, and bag all by yourself. It’s a brave new world, one that feels fiercely independent… yet somehow isolating. Are we really in such a hurry to grab some bagged salad and return to our pods in the sky without so much as engaging in idle banter about the cost of bananas with our local Sobeys cashier?
Setting aside the sociological ramifications of self-checkout—or the fact that some people just seem to hate the whole idea on principal—the question remains: Are these machines really faster and better than good ol’-fashioned clerks? They may be more cost-effective for the stores using them in place of humanoids (ostensibly the reason they were installed in the first place), but do they enhance the shopping experience in a meaningful way for consumers?
In other words, is this really progress? We sought to find out. And while our methods aren’t even remotely scientific, neither is buying batteries or tea lights on a harried Saturday afternoon. But it turns out those mundane activities might actually be less painful than before.
Location: Canadian Tire, Bay and Dundas (#DTN)
Number of self-checkouts vs. on-duty cashiers: Six kiosks and two cashiers at street level.
Wait time to use: None.
Is a clerk presiding over the kiosks? Yes, and he totally plays along with my undercover front about wanting to illustrate this crazy thing called self-checkout for a friend back in Croatia and, so, would he mind if I snapped a few pictures, yada yada yada. After establishing that Zagreb is, in fact, the Croatian capital, the clerk offers to snap my picture standing beside a machine. Now that’s service!
Ease of use: Pretty easy. Prompts are delivered by an upbeat robotic female voice that thanks me for my business and offers me cash back, which is about five kinds of swell. (No fees!)
2001: A Space Odyssey moment: Canadian Tire money is accepted, and dispensed, by this HAL-like terminal. That’s fine for adults, but it denies an entire generation of kids the thrill of being handed a crisp CT bill by their grandpa that’s all theirs to keep.
Verdict: Definitely the way to go.
Location: Metro, Front and Church (#SLM)
Number of self-checkouts vs. on-duty cashiers: Four kiosks, four cashiers, plus customer-service personnel.
Wait time to use: About 90 seconds.
Is a clerk presiding over the kiosks? Hell yes, and there is no way she is prepared to tolerate any picture-taking for self-checkout-curious Croatians. A call to the manager backs her up. Sigh.
Ease of use: Fairly easy, even when buying bulk items (just so long as you remember to write down the bin code number on the little tab). Otherwise, you’ll have to engage the clerk and believe me when I say: You do not want to engage this clerk.
2001: A Space Odyssey moment: The kiosk asks for my Air Miles card. The circle of sophisticated data collection tracking consumer habits for future exploitation is complete.
Verdict: Fine, although it so happens that when I visit this store, a visually impaired man in a wheelchair accompanied by a service dog is being cashed out by a clerk at a nearby register. This clerk couldn’t be any more accommodating—a clear reminder that nothing trumps the human touch.
Location: Toronto Public Library, Pape and Danforth branch (#DAN)
Number of self-checkouts vs. on-duty cashiers: Three kiosks and three staffers behind the main counter.
Wait time to use: None.
Is a clerk presiding over the kiosks? Not in any kind of high-alert way like in grocery stores. They’re just working away as usual.
Ease of use: Dead-easy. You launch the thing, scan your library card, lay your materials on a shiny black electronic bed, and elect to receive or not receive a paper slip listing the due date. Bob’s your uncle.
2001: A Space Odyssey moment: The kiddo at the next terminal, who is maybe five, is whizzing through self-checkout like she was born to do it—which, come to think of it, she was.
Verdict: Easy-peasy, though library staff tend to be quite chipper, so the conversation is missed. And you will have to engage them to pay fines. (You do pay your fines, right?)
Location: Loblaws, Queens Quay and Jarvis (#HAR)
Number of self-checkouts vs. on-duty cashiers: Six kiosks to three cashiers.
Wait time to use: About a minute.
Is a clerk presiding over the kiosks? You betcha.
Ease of use: Easy, but by now these electronic commands are starting to sound hostile. Is it just me or is that prompt to “please place the item in the bag” a smidge impatient? I am also thanked for using self-checkout, which seems ridiculous—would a live cashier thank me for not stealing? Speaking of which, during really busy times, it would be pretty easy to surreptitiously slip something into a bag since the layout here has the customer facing away from the supervising clerk. Just saying.
2001: A Space Odyssey moment: Maybe it’s the high ceiling, the abundance of glass, or the fact that the store is above street-level but it kind of feels like you’re floating in space here. Cool, but a bit disorienting.
Verdict: Meh. On a not-so-busy day, I’d probably go the cashier route.
Location: Ikea at The Queensway and Kipling, #ETO
Number of self-checkouts vs. on-duty cashiers: Eight self-checkout terminals to four cashiers; four more self-checkouts are opened in the time it takes my car-driving pal to go through a regular line with a cashier.
Wait time to use: About three minutes.
Is a clerk presiding over the kiosks? Yes, one clerk for every four machines.
Ease of use: Not only easy, but oddly fun as the process involves the use of a handheld, gun-like scanner that seems to unleash my inner five-year-old. Weeee! Also, the absence of a robo-voice methodically cooing commands is welcome.
2001: A Space Odyssey moment: The machines produce a cacophony of plinky “bloop” sounds when they scan stuff, making you feel like you’re trapped inside a game of Pac-Man.
Verdict: Wickedly fast compared to the lines being handled by humans, simply because there are so many self-checkouts open. Clearly, from Ikea’s point of view, this is the wave of the future—even though it still sucks that they don’t accept American Express.
Summary: As my pro-union, car-driving friend points out at Ikea, self-checkouts are often faster than regular cashiers. But the reduced number of employees they require—usually one person overseeing multiple terminals—could be bad for business long-term.
After all, if folks are replaced by machines and don’t have jobs, they’re not going to be shelling out for Billy bookcases or Fenomen candles. (And it sure would be interesting to know if retailers noticed a spike in theft around the time these machines arrived at their stores.) Plus, I actually like chatting with people. For misanthropes in a hurry, however, self-checkout is tough to beat.
Which do you prefer: self-checkout, or real, live, human cashiers? Let us know in the comments section below.