`Do-It-Yourself': Self-checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Self-Service Trend in American Business
Andrews, Christopher K.
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A significant portion of sociology has always taken as its central focus the underlying relationship between economy and society. This dissertation continues this tradition by examining how self-service and its `do-it-yourself' ethos is changing the U.S. economy and the way in which Americans consume goods and services. Focusing upon the supermarket industry and the three principle stakeholder groups involved - employers, employees, and consumers - this dissertation examines why businesses are adopting automated checkout lanes. Particular attention is given to the reasons cited for their introduction, their effect upon work and employment in the industry, and the public's perception and attitude towards the technology. This dissertation adopts a multi-method approach, using information collected from eighty face-to-face interviews with customers, employees, and store managers, as well as secondary data and nonparticipant observation. Secondary data sources include published economic indicators and employment statistics, as well as information provided by newspapers and retail industry publications; nonparticipant observation was used to collect field notes documenting staffing levels, customer behavior, and other related information. Precisely why self-checkouts are being introduced remains a much-debated issue. Interviews indicate that organized labor and consumers view them as primarily a cost-cutting mechanism, yet labor costs within the industry continue to rise and employment remains relatively stable. At present, a number of social and economic barriers currently limit the extent of their use in stores; these factors include theft, maintenance, perceptions of service, internal controls, and specific labor contract provisions. Results also suggest that external, rather than internal, market factors may be driving current employment trends, including competition in the low-wage labor market and the emergence of non-union competition into the retail food industry. The benefits offered to consumers remains unclear. A majority of customers surveyed still prefer conventional cashier lanes, yet self-checkout clearly appeals to some consumers due to the perceived speed, control, and independence. However, results indicate that under most circumstances self-checkouts are not faster than conventional methods of checkout due to differences in user skill and experience. This may change, however, as similar self-service technologies become increasingly common in the service industry.