The associate professor and chair of sociology offers a deep dive on the ramifications of self-checkout systems
October 2022 – Drew University’s Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology Christopher Andrews joined us for our new Focus on Faculty series, where we highlight the many accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s incredible faculty members.
Andrews’ research on self-checkout systems and shopper behavior has been cited in a number of recent articles, including “Nobody Likes Self-Checkout. Here’s Why It’s Everywhere,” CNN Business; “Self-Checkout Systems Create Headaches for Cashiers,” Prism; and “Is 5-10 Years Fair for Shoplifting $80 from a Walmart Self-Checkout? Kentucky AG Says Yes,” Louisville Courier Journal.
He has authored a book on his research, The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy, which received the 2020 Bela Kornitzer Award.
Read on to learn more about Andrews’ scholarship in and out of the classroom.
What led you to research self-checkout systems and shopper behaviors?
I was shopping at my local supermarket during the Great Recession and noticed the store had installed a half dozen new self-checkout lanes. I thought it seemed ironic, if not heartless, given that millions of Americans were unemployed and desperate for work. As the country was entering the greatest recession in nearly a century, businesses across the country appeared to be implementing new ways of outsourcing paid work to unpaid consumers in the form of self-service.
What I found equally interesting was how people responded. Many were skeptical and worried that it would eliminate more jobs while also requiring them to do more of the work. But some welcomed the new technology and its purported convenience and speed.
Have self-checkout systems eliminated jobs?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are actually more cashiers working in supermarkets today than there were a decade ago—while employment and labor costs have only continued to steadily rise. To paraphrase Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow, the labor-saving effects of self-checkout lanes appear to be everywhere except in the statistics.
Are self-checkout systems here to stay? If so, when do you think we will see improvements in the technology?
Probably. There’s an entire generation of shoppers that have grown up using this technology and with similar forms of self-service technology in banks, airports, libraries, hotels, and movie theaters, just to name a few. I think it has become a common mode of making transactions.
The companies that manufacture these machines are constantly adding improvements. For example, self-service technology using eye scans and fingerprints are now being regularly used for security screening in airports. Other businesses, such as Amazon Go, are doing away with the checkout entirely, relying instead on digital tracking and scanning. Although, at this point, it isn’t cost effective beyond a small convenience-sized store.
Why do some shoppers feel justified to steal from self-checkout terminals?
I think they rationalize that if stores traditionally pay people to perform these same tasks, and they are not getting a discount on the food or compensated for doing the work of scanning and bagging, then they are entitled to a “five finger discount,” as one manager put it.
In fact, the original bargain self-service store, Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly, offered their customers discounts on prices in exchange for doing what at the time were paid tasks, such as collecting items from aisles and shelves. I think if stores had made a similar offer, the public’s response might have been very different.
Do your students learn about these theories in your classroom?
Yes! I bring this up in my courses on work and consumer behavior since we are living in a time where we are seeing more technology and automation, both as employees and as consumers. One of the things I point out to students is that technological innovation in the workplace is shaped by social forces—employees, labor unions, and consumers often have a vote in how technology is implemented.
Another factor is culture. Researchers find that similar technology adopted within the same industry can be implemented in various different ways. I think what we observed with self-checkout lanes in retail is a good example of this. Some stores have not only adopted, but expanded its use—while others have decided to remove it altogether. This is why I emphasize to students that they vote with their pocketbooks to support companies whose products, services, and practices they like and to boycott those they find to be unfair, illegal, or simply poorly operated.