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A story in The Washington Post last Saturday reported on the continued growth of self-checkout technology in the supermarket industry.

The Post writes that the supermarket industry believes that consumers “will learn to love the automated checkout experience, based on market research and on the hope that the devices will help cut costs,” and that “nearly a quarter of all supermarket chains offer self-checkout, up from only 6 percent in 1999.”

Furthermore, “The retail research firm IHL Consulting Group projects that, with advancements in technology, self-checkout could be installed in 95 percent of checkout lanes by the end of the decade. All types of retailers are considering the systems -- with Kmart Corp. and Kroger Co. recently placing huge orders for them -- but grocery stores are leading the trend.”
KC's View:
Okay, we’re convinced that self-checkout isn’t going away.

But we remain troubled that the only guaranteed point of human contact between the supermarket and the consumer is being eliminated, which in the long run could be a problem for supermarkets looking for differential advantages.

Sure, the argument could be made that this same thing has happened successfully in the banking business, and that the use of computerized banking and ATMs has made the teller experience irrelevant.

But food seems different to us. We think the experience ought to be magical, not mechanized. And we’re afraid that self-checkout will, to too many retailers, equal labor hours saved, not labor hours redistributed.