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Some big retailers reverse course and scale back their use of self-checkout


Some retailers are revising their opinions in favor of self-checkout. NPR's Alina Selyukh asked why some stores are turning away from it.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Last year, America's largest dollar store chain, Dollar General, paid for a high-tech study. It used artificial intelligence...


SELYUKH: ...To figure out something about self-checkout...


SELYUKH: ...That probably won't surprise you...

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: System processing. Help is on the way.

SELYUKH: ...Which is how often kiosks don't cooperate with shoppers.


TODD VASOS: Items not being scanned properly or thinking they scanned it and didn't.

SELYUKH: That's the CEO of Dollar General, Todd Vasos, talking to investors a few days ago. What he has admitted is that Dollar General came to rely too much on self-checkout. The chain had put it in the vast majority of stores, but now is reeling it back in. Self-checkout will be just for people buying five or fewer items. It will be gone completely from 300 stores, and at 9,000 stores, workers will now run it.


VASOS: There is truly no substitute for an employee presence.

SELYUKH: Other retailers have been rethinking self-checkout, too. Walmart removed it in a few locations, and this week, Target is making a nationwide change, limiting self-checkout to shoppers with 10 or fewer items and opening more registers with human cashiers. This doesn't mean self-checkout is checking out. It's still spreading, despite issues at some stores, says Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester.

SUCHARITA KODALI: Self-checkout has been problematic for a lot of retailers for a number of years.

SELYUKH: The kiosks were a breakthrough for retail. Shoppers could skip long lines, workers could do other tasks, companies could save on labor costs. Over years, the machines have likely replaced tens of thousands of cashier jobs, but they've also shown their flaws. The biggest one...

KODALI: The main issue is really that people can walk out of the store without scanning items, there can be missed scans, there could be errors.

SELYUKH: Stuff going missing, miscounted, misplaced and stolen, whether by accident, on purpose or by someone just giving up on a kiosk doing something weird. Remember that high-tech study that Dollar General did. Theft was the focus.

KODALI: That's typically the biggest reason why a retailer would remove self-checkout altogether.

SELYUKH: Ironically, Kodali says self-checkout works the best when stores have more workers to watch over the process. Now, some companies are doubling down by adding more technology, like smart cameras to track your movements at a kiosk. And there's the total tech solution like Amazon's, with cameras that know who you are, they follow you around the store and let you check out by simply walking out.

KODALI: That is more of an expensive option.

SELYUKH: So it's not spreading super fast. Overall, surveys find that people actually tend to like self-checkout. They find it more private and most of the time, convenient.

SHERRIE PIERCE: Quick. Easy for me. Just zip, zip.

SELYUKH: Sherrie Pierce popped by a Dollar General just north of Birmingham in Alabama. She says she would miss self-checkout if her store got rid of it.

PIERCE: I've gotten used to it. Now you have to self-checkout everywhere you go, just about.

SELYUKH: Plus, she says she's not much of a talker when facing a cashier, but fellow shopper Becky Richardson says good riddance to the kiosks.

BECKY RICHARDSON: I don't work here. I shouldn't have to ring up my own stuff.

SELYUKH: And that's the balance stores have to weigh - the cost of technology, of hiring staff, of someone likely stealing your stuff against the convenience and the frustration of woman versus machine.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Thank you for using our self-checkout. Please take your bags and your receipt.

SELYUKH: Alina Selyukh, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.