When it comes to shopping, modern Americans are obsessed with convenience. We want the world at our fingertips, and we want it now. Two-day shipping, on-demand food delivery and quick checkouts at the store are all examples that cater to this preference. And who can blame us? Technological advances that make shopping easier are both expedient and time-saving, restoring precious hours to our days that can be used to enhance our productivity or to enjoy more leisure time.
These might seem like uncontroversial ideas, but labor groups in Oregon are determined to wage a war on our convenience. The result will be slower checkout times and more frustration at the grocery store — all for little gain in return.
The Oregon AFL-CIO recently introduced a proposed ballot measure that would limit the number of self-checkout machines at grocery stores to two per store. If it gathers enough signatures, the measure could appear on the November 2020 ballot for state voters to consider.
The backers of the initiative have put forth a plethora of justifications for capping the number of self-service checkout machines in stores. The problem is that none of their claims hold water. For instance, they argue that the elderly and people with disabilities may not be able to use self-checkout machines. But grocery stores always operate several traditional checkout lanes in addition to self-checkout machines, making it easy for shoppers to choose the checkout style that works for them. Also, autistic residents in Oregon have pointed out that they prefer to use self-service machines, showing that the interests of people with disabilities cannot be lumped together.
Supporters also claim that self-checkout machines could increase underage alcohol purchases. But most machines already have built-in compliance mechanisms for alcohol purchases, which require store employees to check the purchaser’s ID before the sale can be completed. To the extent underage sales are occurring at some machines, there are easily-implementable technological and policy responses — such as allowing the machines themselves to scan and verify IDs or clarifying that a store clerk should review IDs — that are far less burdensome than limiting self-checkouts altogether.
Ultimately, the real reason labor groups are backing this initiative is that they believe self-checkout machines reduce jobs in grocery stores as more cashiers are exchanged for machines. While this possibility may be more plausible than the other justifications put forth, it still represents a flawed view.
As Christian Britschgi points out in an article for Reason, technological advances in grocery stores are not new. Historically, grocery store clerks would compile customers’ orders for them rather than allowing them to shop on their own and take their goods to the cashier. This changed with the advent of the first self-service grocery store in the early 1900s. The introduction of the barcode system in the 1970s had a similar revolutionary effect on the retailing market. These trends show that customers like to be empowered to make their own decisions. Placing arbitrary limits on their shopping patterns is unlikely to be a successful long-term strategy.
Additionally, it’s far from certain that capping self-checkout lanes would actually save grocery store jobs. Rather than more cashier jobs being swapped for self-checkout lanes, the real substitution effect in this case would likely be more customers turning to online grocery shopping. Online retailing continues to reach new highs, as consumers increasingly prefer the convenience of shopping from their couch to shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. Reducing the convenience of the in-store experience could push even more shoppers online, which in turn could hurt the very cashiers labor unions intend to protect.
Finally, to the extent that grocery stores are reducing labor costs by using self-checkout machines, the result of this is lower prices for consumers — and we all know that shoppers love low prices almost as much as they love convenience.
In the end, Oregon voters should be leery of any ballot initiatives that purport to help workers by limiting technology. Such efforts rarely work out well in the long term, and they often cause unintended negative consequences for both workers and shoppers alike. It’s time to call a ceasefire in this war on convenience.