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Why several big-box stores have ditched their self-checkouts

Some Canadian Tires, Walmarts and a U.K. grocery chain have bid goodbye to machines

A person scans an item at a self-checkout machine in a store.

At least a handful of Ontario Canadian Tire locations have removed their self-checkout machines

Photo:  (CBC)

RCI

Sophia Harris (new window) · CBC News

After Dwayne Ouelette took over the Canadian Tire in North Bay, Ont., last year, he decided to buck the trend and ditch the store's four self-checkout machines — which had been there for a decade. 

I'm not comfortable using them and I don't think some of my customers are comfortable [either], said Ouelette, who removed the machines in July and replaced them with cashiers. 

I'd rather my customers see my cashiers and if there's any questions or concerns, at least there's somebody they can talk to.

When self-checkouts began their rise to prominence about a decade ago, they were seen as a way for retailers to cut labour costs and speed up the checkout process. 

Soon, the machines outnumbered cashiers in many stores. But now, some big-box stores that previously embraced self-checkout have backtracked, and re-embraced an all-cashier, full-service format.

Along with North Bay, a Canadian Tire in Mississauga, Ont., recently ditched its machines.

A cashier with a client at a Canadian Tire store.

In July, the Canadian Tire in North Bay, Ont., removed its four self-checkouts and replaced them with cashiers.

Photo:  (CBC) / Félix Hallée-Théoret

In the United States, three Walmarts in Albuquerque, N.M., abandoned self-checkout over the past two months. And in England, Booths supermarket is phasing out the machines in 25 of its 27 stores. 

Retail adviser David Ian Gray predicts more stores will follow suit. When self-checkout got introduced, it was heralded as a really great technology play to help improve the customer experience, he said. But the truth is, there's a lot of friction.

That friction includes technical hurdles, like when the machine freezes due to an unexpected item in the bagging area. There's also growing customer anger over feeling forced to use self-checkout (new window) and something the retail industry is not keen to talk about: theft. 

Theft is a big, big issue,  said Gray with Vancouver-based DIG360 Consulting. At the self-checkout area ... you don't have the eyes on you like you would with the cashier.

15% stolen at self-checkout: poll

It's difficult to gauge the theft problem due to a lack of statistics. The Retail Council of Canada has said shoplifting is on the rise, but that it doesn't track self-checkout theft (new window)

In July, CBC News asked several major retailers about this type of theft, but none directly answered the question. 

Retailers were more forthcoming in an industry-funded study published in 2022 (new window). In it, 93 retailers across the globe estimated that as much as 23 per cent of their store losses were due to a combination of theft and customer error at self-checkout.

And a new survey (new window) commissioned by U.S. personal finance website LendingTree found that out of 2,000 Americans polled online last month, 15 per cent admitted to stealing at self-checkout. Twenty-one per cent said they've accidentally taken an item without scanning it. 

That's an awful lot of people who are walking away from self checkout without paying for stuff, said LendingTree chief credit analyst Matt Schulz. For all the upside that there is with self-checkout for retailers, there's a lot of risk as well.

A man.

Derek Shogren, general manage of the Canadian Tire in North Bay, says self-checkout theft was only a small part of why the store ditched its machines. He says the main reason was to make way for a new system where all shoppers wait in the same line for the next cashier.

Photo:  (CBC) / Félix Hallée-Théoret

Back at Canadian Tire in North Bay, general manager Derek Shogren says self-checkout theft is an issue, but that it was only a small part of why the store ditched its machines. 

He said the main reason was to make way for a new system where all shoppers wait in the same line for the next cashier. 

The flow is a lot better, he said. Canadian Tires carry so many big products, whether it's snowblowers, gazebos, generators that don't really lend themselves to self-checkouts.

Customers CBC News spoke with said they are happy with the new format in North Bay. 

I prefer this just because I like the contact with person to person, said Audrey Amanda.

I'm happy to see that their self-checkouts are gone, said Robin Clay, adding that some stores now are almost all-self-checkout. 

You really don't have a choice and it's kind of upsetting.

WATCH | Self-checkout theft can lead to receipt checks: 

What about the other stores?

The general manager of the Canadian Tire in Mississauga that removed its four self-checkouts earlier this year told CBC News that theft and customer preference were factors in its decision. 

CBC spoke with customers outside the store and got mixed reviews. 

It's moving backwards, said Junaid Chaudhry, who laments the loss of self-checkout at the store. It's faster. You don't have to wait in line with everybody else.

But Claudette McKay found the lineup at the store moved quickly. 

I think that it's much more customer-focused. It's not relying on the customer to do the job for the retailer.

A man.

Outside a Canadian Tire store in Mississauga, Ont., customer Junaid Chaudhry said he prefers using self-checkout and would like the store to reinstate the machines.

Photo:  (CBC) / Tina MacKenzie

Walmart provided no specific reasons why it removed self-checkouts at three Albuquerque stores.

We continually look at ways to provide our customers with the best shopping experience, said U.S. Walmart spokesperson Joe Pennington in an email to CBC News. 

In England, Booths managing director Nigel Murray told the BBC that self-checkout was ill-suited for the supermarket because it sells numerous unpackaged items that don't have scannable barcodes. 

We have lots of loose produce, lots of loose bakery items. It slows the whole thing down. It makes it really complicated, he said. 

What's the future of self-checkout?

Although some stores have removed their machines, LendingTree's Schulz says self-checkout isn't likely to disappear as many retailers — and customers — still embrace them. According to his company's survey, 40 per cent of respondents said they frequently use self-checkout. 

Retail adviser Gray predicts that rather than pull their machines, many retailers may start scaling back. 

I think when customers feel they're being forced into something, it builds up resentment, he said. I don't think self-checkout's going to go away entirely, but I think we're going to see a lot of retail swing back into a more balanced choice for for shoppers.

That's what happened recently at six Shoprite drugstores in Delaware. A few years ago, the stores adopted a mainly self-checkout model. But in September, following customer backlash (new window), the drugstore's owner-operator pared down its self-checkouts and added back more cashiers. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris (new window) · CBC News · Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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