“Stealing” labor?

Image Credit: pin add / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

I have heard the various complaints about the idea of self-checkout lines at the supermarket.  They are “depriving” someone of a job.  Or they are “stealing” the labor of the folk using them.

These arguments are basically ridiculous.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the way one shopped for groceries was to go to a local grocer, hand him your list, and he’d go back and select produce, canned goods, and what have you, bring it up front, ring it up, take your money and hand you your bag.

Then, someone had the bright idea of opening up the shop, letting people select their own goods and put them in a basket, bringing it to a checkout where it was rung up and you paid and took it out of the store.

Was “requiring” you to go back into the store and get your own produce, canned goods, and boxed goods instead of the grocer, or his help, doing it for you sealing your labor?

When I was a kid, it was common to have someone bag the groceries and take them out to the curb. You’d bring your car up and they’d load the groceries for you. However, while I was still quite young that service went away and you had to do it yourself.

Was making you take your own groceries out to the car and load them up yourself stealing your labor?

I was in my teens before I first encountered the idea of a “buffet” restaurant (a smorgasbord place in Florida).  In one of these, you get up from your table, go to the line, get your own food and take it back to your table to eat rather than have a waiter or waitress do that for you.

Was making you get your own food stealing your labor?

From time to time I’ve gone to “pick it yourself” farms or orchards where you go out into the field and pick your own berries or apples or what have you on your own and then carry it back to pay for however much you cart off.

Was having you go out and pick the produce yourself rather than having someone else do it for you “stealing your labor”?

Mind you, the first two of those things are now being added as a “value added” that you pay extra for, and that’s the key.

Eliminating each of those things, the grocer filling your list and bringing it out to you, and they “bag boy” taking your stuff out and loading it into the car for you allowed grocers to compete on price, reducing the cost making groceries less expensive for the people buying them and folk can be very sensitive to price when it comes to basics like groceries.  One might assume that the money the business saves by having you do the checking out just goes into the owner’s pockets, but that would just leave an opportunity for competitors to set lower prices and “steal” customers.  This is especially true in the places that market themselves as low-cost leaders–exactly the kind of places which are most prone to introduce self-checkout lanes.

There’s another factor as well.  The stores local to me generally have six to eight self-checkout registers in the space that would previously have had two regular lanes. Indeed, the checkout where I do most of my grocery shopping has as many self-checkout lanes as all the regular ones combined. That means that the checkout is more parallel, more people having their purchases rung up at the same time. This means that the lines are shorter.

“Standing in line waiting” is as much “my labor” as running stuff over the sensor while the computer rings it up. From that perspective “self-checkouts” actually reduce the time and effort on my part.

Lower prices, less time spent waiting in line, freeing both  money and time to be spent on other pursuits.  It’s pure win.

6 thoughts on ““Stealing” labor?”

  1. And all of the self-checkout lanes are always open, vs. only 2 or 3 of the dozen or more “regular” lanes.

    On the other hand, watching other shoppers attempt to actually use the self-checkout lanes is, more often than not, a field study of utter human stupidity.


    1. Occasionally one or two of the self-checkouts will be closed for “technical problems” but pretty much. And in the local supermarket where I do most of my shopping, even if all the regular checkouts are open, there are still as many self-checkouts, which between them use the space of something like two lanes of regular checkout. Six self checkouts and six regular lanes–shoppers divided up 12 ways)–or eight lanes without the self checkouts–shoppers divided up 8 ways for lines half again as long.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Many stores now have curbside service or even delivery service. Curbside service is very similar to what you describe from the earlier days – give your list to the grocer and the grocer selects the items and brings them to you.

    In other words – LOOK AT ALL THE OPTIONS!!!! I can choose how much of my time, labor, and money I want to spend according to MY preferences, and I’m not even locked into one choice: today, self-checkout, tomorrow, curbside.
    That is an additional aspect that the ‘stealing labor’ idiots miss. It’s my choice, and I’m better off because I have more choices.


    1. As I mentioned in the post, having someone else get the stuff for you and having someone bring it out to the car are reappearing as “value added” items (generally at a bit of cost). Indeed, we’re also getting delivery from the store directly to your home.

      You can generally tell how much people, in general, want something by how much they’re willing to pay for it–i.e. how much other stuff they’re willing to forego in order to obtain it.


      1. That’s what so many pundits seem to forget – cost is not just labor [thank you, Marx], or labor plus materials, but what other efforts people are willing to put into getting things. That includes emotional attachment, as I’ve observed recently, as well as time-costs. Cost and pricing are far more complicated than the textbooks and news experts imply. (As are most things when people are involved. 🙂 )


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