I woke up early this morning. Strange but true. Since I had a couple of grocery-type items to buy, and there’s not much else to do at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, I cycled to Tesco to get them. I anticipated, correctly, that it would be quiet: few people drag themselves out of bed at that time on a weekend. To be honest, I usually have immense difficulty in even waking up that early.

It didn’t take me long to pick up the items I wanted, but there were long lines at the handful of checkouts that were actually open. I decided to go to one of the self-service checkouts.

That was my first mistake.

My second mistake was deciding to use my own bag, rather than waste another plastic bag.

You’d think that a self-service checkout would be fairly simple. It needs to perform three functions:

  1. Scan the items
  2. Calculate the total
  3. Let you pay

And if that’s all the Tesco self-service checkout did, it would be fine. If only.

There are three main problems with the self-service checkouts. The first is that the interface is a touch-sensitive screen with about two seconds’ latency. You are left impotently tapping an intransigent piece of glass, wondering if it’s working.

The second problem is one of trust. It may seem strange, but, having trusted you to walk around the store, collect the items you need, and scan them yourself, they tighten down the screws at the checkout. There are scales under both the basket and the ‘bagging area’ (an expression you quickly learn to hate), checking that you correctly transfer items from one to the other via the scanner. This is actually the main point of failure:

  • You can’t use your own bag to put stuff in, because the weight confuses the ‘bagging area’ sensor.
  • If you buy something light, such as a small piece of root ginger, the machine won’t acknowledge that you have bagged it.
  • It just randomly screws up anyway.

The third problem is the annoying, hectoring voice that tells you over and over and over and over AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AFUCKINGGAIN when the machine is upset. Which is all the time, as far as I can see. In fact, the machine has several annoying hectoring messages, which butt in over each other.


The voice is so loud, annoying, and insistent that it’s impossible to concentrate once it starts up.

Once something goes wrong, the daft automaton insists that you wait for an assistant to come over and comfort it. In my experience of using the self-service checkout and watching others use it, about three quarters of purchases require such intervention. I assume that the purpose of the self-service checkouts is to improve throughput and reduce labour costs; when Tesco have to station several assistants permanently at each self-service island—there were two there during a very quiet period this morning—those aims are self-evidently not being achieved.

All of this happens because, despite trusting us to pick, scan, bag, and pay for our own shopping, Tesco doesn’t really trust us. The inept second-guessing of the self-service checkout cancels out any time or cost savings that might otherwise have been gained, and really ruins the experience. For the sake of the occasional overlooked tin of beans, it’s a terrible, frustrating experience.