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Self-checkout machines at a Swiss retail group Coop supermarket in Zumikon, Switzerland, on Dec. 13, 2016.Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Rob Csernyik is a 2022 Michener-Deacon fellow and a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

While living in New Brunswick, I was used to only half a dozen self-checkouts at the superstore near my apartment. But in Australia, self-checkouts are an outsized part of the grocery landscape. Many locations of Coles and Woolworths outlets – the country’s dominant grocery chains – have double that, if not more.

On a recent visit to a central Melbourne Coles, I counted nearly 40 self-checkouts, and only two employees were circulating among them to help customers. Even at grocery stores in large Canadian cities such as Montreal and Toronto, I haven’t come across self-checkout sections as grand at grocery stores.

But it’s not a stretch to imagine. In a traditionally low-margin business such as groceries, where labour expenses can amount to about 10 per cent of gross sales, there’s a target on the category’s back. That makes self-checkouts attractive because one employee can oversee multiple units. For customers, it appears to get rid of long lines.

I’ll let you in on a secret from Australia’s big bet: nobody’s happy. For grocers, self-checkout expansion has wrought more theft and a need to spend even more to combat it. For customers, being treated more like potential thieves rather than paying clients is unpleasant.

Worker shortages and social distancing made self-checkouts increasingly attractive over the last few years to companies across the globe, including Canadian fast food outlets and retailers. But the convenience and speed with which customers can navigate themselves through the payment process is only true to a point.

At a ratio of 40 self-checkouts to two employees, for instance, making a mistake and needing the attendant can prove more complicated than going to an analog human cashier. When the presence of self-checkouts looms larger, the Australian experience demonstrates that the problems do, too.

Over the past several months, new anti-theft measures have sprouted up at Australian grocery stores, including high-tech cameras, anti-theft gates and security officers guarding self-checkout sections. These have drawn considerable criticism, a common complaint being that a trip to the grocery store doesn’t feel like shopping anymore, but like being placed under surveillance.

I’ve experienced this first-hand on multiple occasions. Once, at a self-checkout I accidentally (I swear) didn’t scan a package of kangaroo kebabs properly. Before I could scan it again, a security guard crept up behind me and sternly pointed out my error.

As someone who has previously worked in customer service, this new fixation on theft takes on an extra layer of strangeness. I was frequently encouraged to give shoplifters the benefit of the doubt as part of providing good customer service – for example, by assuming they may have genuinely forgotten to pay for an item. This sort of generosity has disappeared wholesale in the quest to protect the expanded foray into self-checkouts.

Making shopping experiences more complex and uncomfortable for all shoppers is a daft way to solve the problems inherent with self-checkouts. It increasingly seems like going back to the tried-and-true cashier is a better solution, not to mention one that involves a lot less capital investment. Anti-theft measures don’t come cheap, and the bad press from customer complaints carries a hefty price tag, too.

Taking this step back isn’t without precedence either. Businesses around the globe are reportedly retreating from self-checkouts, though for now in relatively isolated experiences. Two Ontario-located Canadian Tire stores and multiple locations of American and British chain stores are among them.

The difference in the self-checkout narratives in Canada and Australia is striking. North American self-checkout dissidents frequently express concerns that cashier tasks are being offloaded to customers. But here, where the spread is more advanced, it’s harder to make that argument. When self-checkouts are novel, sure. But when they dominate a storefront, they are the norm.

This shift has given rise to several new customer frustrations, but it’s not too late for Canadians to be spared them. It’s as simple as businesses avoiding going bullish on self-checkouts, despite the temptation.

There are limits to how companies can optimize and trim checkout costs before the benefits erode, and their bottom lines and customer experiences are negatively impacted. This is playing out at Australian grocers in real time. Let their hard-learned lessons be the reason it doesn’t play out the same way in Canada in the future.

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