Grocery store owners, your sales are rising. How about hiring some more cashiers?

A self-checkout machine from ECRS

A self-checkout machine from ECRS

by Dan Rafter

Grocery stores are thriving today as the U.S. economy continues its rebound, with Progressive Grocer Magazine reporting that this sector of the retail industry accounted for more than $638 billion in sales in 2014. The same source reported that the United States boasted 37,716 supermarkets in 2014 that recorded $2 million or more in annual sales.

The grocery industry is also a jobs engine, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that 3.4 million employees work in supermarkets.

So here’s a question: Why do the grocery stores I shop at so rarely open more than two lanes at a time?

I was shopping at my local Meijer store yesterday at 4 p.m. Granted, this isn’t a prime time for a grocery store. But just two cashiers were working. And I had to spend 20 minutes in line. (Yes, I know this isn’t the most serious of problems. But who wants to spend 20 minutes in a checkout line?)

And this isn’t a rarity. My local Jewel store rarely opens even a third of their checkout lanes if it’s not a Saturday or Sunday, no matter how many people tend to be shopping.

Then there’s the bagger situation. Why do so few grocery stores today hire enough baggers? Even during the busiest of times, the few baggers at my local Jewel shuttle between open lanes. There are plenty of times when I and other customers simply bag our own groceries. (Again, I know this ranks low on the scale of serious problems. But admit it: It’s annoying to have to bag your own groceries.)

Grocery stores are obviously trying to save money. But it’s not like cashiers make a fortune. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cashiers at grocery stores earn an hourly mean wage of just $10.37 and an annual mean wage of just $21,570.

Technology, of course, is playing a role here: Grocery stores are relying more on self-checkout machines that allow customers to pay for their groceries without interacting at all with a human cashier. Just swipe your groceries through the self-checkouts, insert cash or plastic, bag your groceries and leave. (That’s if you’re lucky enough not to see the dreaded “Unexpected item in bagging area” message.)

London-based Retail Banking Research in 2013 studied the rise of self-checkout machines, estimating that the number of self-checkout terminal shipments will rise to nearly 60,000 across the globe in 2018. That’s up significantly from the 27,000 shipments that the company tracked in 2012.

Viewbank in March of 2014 found that only 10 percent of the 1,017 adults it surveyed had never used a self-checkout machine.

The message here? Get used to long lines at human-staffed checkout lanes. Grocery stores today are enamored with self-checkout machines and less thrilled with hiring human cashiers. That’s not necessarily great for the U.S. economy — even if cashier jobs aren’t ideal, they’re still jobs — or for us shoppers.

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