Shoppers upset over lack of cashiers as self-checkout use soars


Linda Hause says a recent shopping trip to her local Walmart in Edmonton was a painful experience.

Hause, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, says sometimes her Walmart has no cashier lanes open, requiring her to get assistance at self-checkout. But she says that on this occasion, the self-checkout attendant declined to help.

“They didn’t seem to understand that I had a disability,” said Hause, who was driving a mobility scooter at the time. “I felt that maybe they thought that I was just being lazy.”

Determined to finish her shop, Hause says she climbed out of her scooter to scan her 40 items — and paid the price.

Linda Hause stands with her walker in front of her house.
Linda Hause of Edmonton, who has multiple sclerosis, says she was in pain after she had to pay for her items at Walmart at self-checkout without assistance. (submitted by Linda Hause)

“I was in fairly excruciating pain. It was mostly in my back, but my legs were sore as well,” she said. “I just came home and went to bed with painkillers.”

Hause is one of many shoppers raising concerns about the lack of cashiers in some stores as the number of self-checkouts increases.

She says that ideally, Walmart should always have a cashier option, so people who need assistance are guaranteed to get it. 

“That way, I don’t have to ask for help,” she said. “It’s demeaning.”

Divisive issue

Self-checkout continues to be a divisive issue, with many shoppers embracing it and others, not so much. CBC News interviewed several people who said during recent visits to major retailers, they were frustrated to find cashiers weren’t available — only self-checkout. 

“I’m disappointed,” said Canadian Tire customer, Bob Valcov of Gatineau, Que. “It seems like they don’t really want my business.”

Bob Valcov stands in front of Canadian Tire.
Bob Valcov of Gatineau, Que., says he’s boycotting his local Canadian Tire because during several recent visits there were no cashier and only self-checkout lanes were open. (David Ellis/CBC)

Valcov says he stopped shopping at his local Canadian Tire in June, following several store visits where only the self-checkouts were open and no staff members were available to help him. 

“What I resent is being made to work for the company, being made to do stuff for them,” he said. “[Checkout] is normally a service that, throughout history, they provide to you.”

Self-checkouts on the rise

However, times are changing.

VideoMining, a U.S. market research company, analyzed shoppers’ checkout habits during 1.2 billion trips to more than 1,000 U.S. grocery stores in 2022. 

It found that self-checkout made up more than half (55 per cent) of all customer transactions, a big spike from 2017 when the machines accounted for about one third (36 per cent) of transactions. 

“For the first time we saw a majority of checkout happening at self-checkout,” said VideoMining CEO Rajeev Sharma.

The study also found that self-checkouts made up almost half (48 per cent) of all registers in the stores. In its 2017 study, they accounted for only 34 per cent. 

Convenience vs. customer service

Sharma says retailers like self-checkout because it reduces labour costs, and that customers are increasingly drawn to the machines to avoid long lines at the cash register. 

“The number of traditional checkouts that are open is shrinking,” he said. “If you make a short trip of a few items, you don’t want to get stuck in a line for a long time. So this really is a big convenience factor for many people.”

Sharma says he expects self-checkout use to grow, and notes that some retailers are experimenting with an all-self-checkout model. 

But retail expert Liza Amlani says ditching cashiers is a risky venture, because shoppers remain divided over self-checkout.

Liza Amlani standing on the street being interviewed by CBC.
Retail expert Liza Amlani says stores that offer only self-checkout are making a risky move, because some shoppers dislike the machines. She said finding the right balance is critical. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

“We know that many of them don’t want self-checkout, but a lot of them do. So this is where finding the right balance is critical,” said Amlani, with Retail Strategy Group in Toronto. “The customer experience is one of the top measures of keeping people coming back into stores.”

Canadian Tire told CBC News that because its stores are independently owned, they each create their own checkout policy. CBC was not able to reach Valcov’s local Canadian Tire for comment. 

Walmart said it determines staffing based on the needs of each store, and that employees are available at all stores to help customers at self-checkout. Walmart says it’s looking into the case of Hause, the customer who says she was denied assistance.

“Our associates are expected to help as needed,” said Walmart spokesperson Stephanie Fusco in an email.

But Amlani says customers shouldn’t have to ask for assistance.

“This is an added friction point that does not need to exist,” she said. “You have to at least have one [cashier] available for the customer, so that they can check out in a meaningful way.”

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Shoppers Drug Mart policy to offer both

Retailer Loblaw, which owns pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart, says its policy is to offer customers both self-checkout and cashier options at all times. 

Even so, Sheldon Rayman of Brampton, Ont., says that sometimes, there are no cashiers to be found at his local Shoppers. 

“Instead of [self-checkout] being an additional convenience or an additional level of service, it seems to be a downgrade of service,” he said.

Jocelyn Winterburn says she’s now avoiding her local Shoppers in Vernon, B.C., after she was told she had to use self-checkout during a visit to the store in January. 

Winterburn worries self-checkout will lead to job losses. “I believe in customer service,” she said. “Why do they want to replace everybody with machines?”

In an email to CBC News, Loblaw offered Rayman and Winterburn an apology, and said that it has contacted their local stores to resolve the problem.

“We are disappointed by the experience these customers have described,” wrote a Loblaw spokesperson in an email. 

In 2019 and 2021, CBC News reported similar complaints from Shoppers customers that they weren’t offered a cashier option. Both times, Loblaw told CBC it expects stores to always give customers a choice when checking out. 

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