In My Own Words: Rambling thoughts on self-checkouts, cheating and more

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Am I the only person who hates self-checkout machines? My reasons are personal, at least at the grocery store. 1) The movement from cart to the self-checkout bothers my back. Grocery shopping is difficult enough without having it cause physical pain, in addition to the financial pain. 2) I can never get the machines to work properly. A store employee always has to help me at least two to three times. 3) The voice of the machine drives me crazy. I’ve been tempted to yell at it to shut up, but if it’s not talking, then I can’t tell if I actually scanned an item because sometimes I can’t hear the beeps. These are just the major reasons I try never to use them. However. according to news reports, more and more stores are getting rid of self-checkouts and – gasp, the novelty of this! – hiring staff to help customers.

Although I’ve only seen this reported as a reason for one business, I wonder if the change is the same one that caused Wegmans to stop letting people checkout using their phones: too many people cheated. In fact, I’ve figured out numerous ways that you could cheat using the self checkout. Let me be clear: I have not used those methods, but when working at my dad’s accounting office years ago, I became fascinated by the way businesses cheated so they could pay less tax. (By the way, this was not something we could definitely prove, or there was no way my father would have done their taxes. However, it was pretty clear something was going on.) Since then, I’ve periodically contemplated how people could cheat when standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at other businesses. 

I know some people cheat because they think they are “sticking it to the man.” For those unaware of the meaning of that term, Wikipedia defines it as “to take some action intended to defy a source of oppression such as globalization, commercialization, big business or government (on the large scale) or individual leaders and authorities like teachers, bosses, police, or politicians.” Unfortunately, when it comes to businesses, “the man” is just going to raise prices because the bottom line of any business is to make a profit. While Charles Dickens wrote about this on a personal scale – “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery” – businesses are looking to do far more than break even because that’s how they manage to pay their employees, to offer health insurance, etc. 

Please note, I am not excusing price gouging and CEOs having a ton of benefits while their workers are not given paid sick time, health insurance, etc. But I do know about small businesses that are trying to break even. Employers have to pay their employees first and make sure that their payroll taxes and sales taxes are paid or they get closed down by the government. That means that people who run their own business aren’t guaranteed a paycheck. Think about that for a minute: you’re working a ton of hours and you get paid nothing for it. I saw that at my dad’s office and it’s one of the reasons why I know that it’s not always great to be your own boss. Yes, lots of people want work for themselves – three cheers, no boss! – but then all your customers/clients are your boss. And your paycheck may be far less than minimum wage.

I don’t have any great conclusions to announce here, except it’s better not to cheat or shoplift, but you probably didn’t need to read these ramblings in order to discover that. I am grateful that self-checkouts are slowly disappearing if only because I also like personal interactions with a real-life human being. Yes, it may only be small talk for a couple of minutes, but it’s far more pleasant to talk to a person than a machine.