The rise of self-checkout machines is causing a significant decline in the number of vacancies for supermarket jobs, according to new figures.
As the holiday season approaches, supermarkets traditionally hire extra staff to handle the influx of festive shoppers.
However, job search engine Adzuna’s data reveals that the number of job vacancies related to checkout staff has sharply decreased since the widespread adoption of self-checkout machines, accounting for less than 15 percent of supermarket jobs in October 2023, compared to 58 percent in October 2016.
Last October, there were 2,748 checkout-related job vacancies, but this month, during one of the busiest hiring periods of the year, that number fell to 2,020, marking a 26 percent decrease, as reported by Adzuna.
A 10% annual increase
Meanwhile, the number of self-checkout machines in supermarkets has surged from 53,000 to approximately 80,000 over the past five years, with a 10 percent annual increase, according to analytics platform RBR Data Services. Industry publication The Grocer reports that approximately eight out of every ten sales in a typical supermarket now go through self-checkout lanes, with less than 10 percent of shoppers identifying as non-self-checkout users. Among this group, a third expressed dissatisfaction, likening using self-checkout to working for the retailer.
A decline in customer satisfaction has been observed, with a survey by the Institute of Customer Service showing that customer satisfaction in the retail sector is at its lowest since 2015. Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute, suggested that the rise of self-service technology may be a contributing factor. She emphasised the need for a balance between technology and face-to-face staff to cater to varying customer preferences.
Supermarkets argue that the shift to self-checkout machines is driven by customer preference and the increasing popularity of online shopping. Tesco CEO Ken Murphy defended self-checkouts, stating, “We genuinely believe, at the end of the day, it provides a better customer experience.”
Replacing people with machines?
In 2022, a change.org petition gathered over 200,000 signatures, urging Tesco to “stop replacing people with machines.” Morrisons, on the other hand, mentioned that the transition to self-checkouts allowed them to utilise space in different ways, such as stocking more products. The majority of their stores offer a mix of self-service and manned checkout options, with the remaining stores featuring kiosks for customers who prefer traditional checkouts.
Waitrose asserted that all its branches would continue to have manned checkouts alongside self-service machines, as they considered manned checkouts important to their customers. Lidl reported having self-checkouts in approximately one-third of its stores, always supervised by colleagues, and none of their stores were exclusively self-checkout.
According to Andrew Hunter from Adzuna, supermarkets are now more inclined to hire sales assistants who are expected to handle tasks such as stocking shelves, date checking and rotating stock, preparing click-and-collect orders, assisting at counters, and answering customer queries. These workers often have shifts starting early in the morning and ending late at night, particularly during the busy holiday season.
Sales assistant roles are also on the decline
However, despite the shift in hiring patterns, sales assistant roles as a proportion of overall supermarket hiring increased by only 5.6 percentage points compared to October last year and were down 10.6 percentage points compared to 2016. A 2019 study by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce found that approximately 75,000 jobs as sales assistants or checkout operators, traditionally held by women, had disappeared in the last seven years as British shoppers turned to online deliveries.
These developments in the retail sector occur amidst a shoplifting crisis, with retail theft surging to £1 billion per year, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Graham Wynn, the BRC’s assistant director of Business and Regulation, attributed this increase to organised crime gangs, rather than self-checkout machines. Wynn mentioned that retailers were investing heavily in security measures, including security staff, CCTV, security tags, and other anti-crime measures. Unfortunately, the lack of an effective police response has emboldened many criminals, including organised crime gangs, to shoplift with impunity.
Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Iceland, and Co-op were approached for comment on this issue.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.