Major Retailers Are Backtracking on Self-Checkouts

After years of investing in self-checkout machines, some major retailers are reversing course.

Dollar General has eliminated self-checkout options at about 12,000 locations, a majority of its stores. Five Below is working to remove self-checkout entirely in some of its “highest-risk” locations. Target also announced steps to limit or eliminate self-checkout options at some stores this year. Amazon is pulling its “Just Walk Out” cashierless checkout system from its grocery stores.

These reversals come from retailers that once praised the benefits of fully self-service stores. In 2022, Dollar General highlighted self-checkout technology’s potential to “enhance the convenience proposition, while enabling our associates to dedicate even more time to serving customers.” The company tested stores with 100% self-checkout kiosks in hundreds of locations.

Five Below said it’s removing self-checkout options in high-risk locations due to theft. The decisions aim to reduce “shrink,” a term for lost inventory through error or theft by shoppers or employees.

Some companies shifting away from self-checkout blame theft for their moves. In March, Five Below CEO Joel Anderson said replacing self-checkout options with employees was a significant change in their theft mitigation efforts. Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos stated their goal is to restrict self-checkout to high-traffic, low-theft locations.

However, the industry’s shoplifting complaints have sometimes been questioned. At least one retail executive admitted last year to overstating shrink concerns.

Shrink at self-checkouts “can be absolutely intentional from bad actors,” said Claire Tassin, a retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult, “or it could be accidental.” She added, “I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with a self-checkout machine.” Customers may also pretend to scan items and just bag them anyway.

People often complain about the machines being difficult to use, loud, or just challenging in some way.

According to a LendingTree survey last year, 15% of self-checkout users admitted to stealing while using the machines. About 41% of consumers almost always use self-checkout when it’s available, but 21% feel like they’re performing “free labor,” and 14% see it as taking a job from a would-be cashier.

Representatives for Dollar General and Five Below didn’t immediately comment.

Tassin said some retailers may also be looking to improve the customer experience. “People are always complaining about the machines being difficult to use or loud or just challenging in some way,” she said.

Jerome Osei, at a Morton Williams supermarket in New York City, described them as a waste of time. “I have to wait for someone to come in and fix it,” he said, preferring the cashier checkout instead.

Other shoppers had more favorable views. “Super fast, easy, convenient,” said shopper Jessi Clayton. “It’s a great option to have, especially when you’re in a hurry.”

Consumers worried about self-checkouts’ impact on jobs might be cheered by the recent rollbacks. Five Below and Dollar General said they’re reinvesting in workers as part of their changes.

“It tells us that it is more profitable for the retailer to pay employees to manage checkout,” Tassin said. “And they’re of course going to be better at it than the average untrained consumer.” She added, it is more profitable than relying on machines with less-than-accurate consumer checkouts.

Despite the shift back toward human cashiers, Tassin doesn’t expect shoppers to pay more. “Retailers know consumers are pretty pressed for prices. So I don’t think this will make a massive, meaningful difference in consumer prices,” she said.

While some stores are moving away from self-checkout, the option isn’t disappearing soon. An estimated 44% of grocery store transactions took place in self-checkout lanes last year, up from 29% in 2022.