Some Shoppers Drug Mart customers complain they were pushed to use self-checkout — again

Business

For the second time in two years, CBC News has heard complaints from Shoppers Drug Mart customers that some of the chain's stores are pushing people to use self-checkout and reserving cashiers for cash payments only.

CBC News interviewed six people in three provinces who each complained that when recently visiting a Shoppers Drug Mart store, they were told they must use self-checkout — unless they paid with cash. The chain's parent company says its policy is that customers should always have the choice to pay at the cash.(CBC/Sophia Harris)

Michael Kerwin said he was taken aback when at two Toronto-area Shoppers Drug Marts this month, he was told he must purchase his goods using self-checkout — unless he paid with cash.

Self-checkout machines at the drug store chain only accept debit and credit cards.

"All of a sudden, they're like, 'If you don't have cash, you cannot go to the cashier,'" said Kerwin. "I want the option to deal with a real human being."

Over the past several years, many Canadian retailers have added self-checkout machines, claiming they provide a convenient option for customers.

But for the second time in two years, CBC News has heard accusations from Shoppers customers that some of the chain's stores are pushing people to use self-checkout.

Today <a href="https://twitter.com/ShopprsDrugMart?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ShopprsDrugMart</a> Belleville. One cashier at self-checkouts. I wanted to be checked out. She said only for cash. Debit has to use these. I'll help. I said, I prefer not to. She said, your choice. So I handed her my basket and left. I'm a radical. 🤷‍♀️

&mdash;@mmofcan

Hi Charles, We're sorry to read that you aren't a fan. We are always looking for ways to make customers’ shopping trips as convenient as possible. We appreciate your feedback and will be sure to share it with our Store Operations team.

&mdash;@ShopprsDrugMart

Concerns about lack of choice, staff

CBC News interviewed six people in three provinces who each said that during a recent visit to a Shoppers store, they were told they could only check out with a cashier if they were paying with cash.

Lorrie Perko said that was her experience when visiting a Shoppers last month in Waterloo, Ont.

"[An employee] stood there with her hands crossed, and she said, 'Head office said, unless you're using cash or buying lottery [tickets], you have to use self-checkouts now.'"

Perko said she didn't have enough cash, so she begrudgingly used self-checkout.

"If I'd had cash, I'd have made her open up that till."

Michael Kerwin and his partner, Colleen Pilger said they were upset when they were told they had to use the self-checkout machines to buy their goods at two different Shoppers Drug Marts this month. (CBC/Craig Chivers)

Perko said she should have been given a choice. Other beefs from customers interviewed included concerns the machines weren't cleaned often enough or that their use would result in reductions in staff.

"They're trying to maximize their profits by having [customers] do the work," said Kerwin.

The chain's parent company, Loblaws, did not respond to questions about whether the introduction of self-checkout machines at Shoppers have resulted in any job losses.

During a November 2020 Loblaws earnings call, the company pinpointed self-checkouts as one of its "efficiency initiatives" and said it has helped the retail giant cut operating costs.

Loblaws responds

In 2019, several Shoppers customers interviewed for a CBC News story also complained they were told to use self-checkout unless paying with cash.

Around that same time, two Shoppers employees in Ontario told CBC that their supervisors were pressuring them to push customers to use the self-checkout machines.

Loblaws told CBC News in 2019 that it expects stores to always give customers the option of checking out with a cashier.

"It is not our intention that customers feel they do not have a choice, and we have reminded all stores of this expectation," said spokesperson Catherine Thomas at the time in an email.

As for the latest complaints, CBC News contacted the five Shoppers stores where customers said they were pushed to use self-checkout. Each store said to contact head office.

Loblaws told CBC News its policy hasn't changed and that customers should always have the option of using a cashier.

The company didn't address the recent claims except to say that it hasn't seen an increase in customer complaints about self-checkouts.

Shoppers, has, however, addressed several such complaints on social media in which customers said they felt pushed to use the machines.

In response to one complaint posted last month, a Shoppers spokesperson wrote: "Recently, we've increased our investment in self-checkouts and their technology based on our customer feedback."

In response to one customer complaint on Facebook about self-checkout, Shoppers responded that it has increased its investment in self-checkout machines based on customer feedback. (Facebook)

Loblaws spokesperson Thomas told CBC News that hundreds of thousands of Shoppers customers use the self-checkout option daily.

Survey suggests self-checkouts are popular

During the pandemic, the chain has "seen a significant increase in self-checkout use, with customers looking to minimize interaction with others or for a faster checkout option," she said. "We watch these metrics closely, along with our in-store customer satisfaction, and believe they tell a more accurate story."

A new survey out of Dalhousie University in Halifax also found that self-checkouts have become a popular choice for consumers.

According to the survey, almost 40 per cent of the 10,000 Canadians polled online in May said they planned to use self-checkout most of the time when shopping at grocery stores within the next six months.

The survey's lead investigator, Sylvain Charlebois, said that fears of catching COVID-19 have likely motivated some people to use self-checkout when shopping.

"They want to get out as soon as possible," said Charlebois, who specializes in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie. "If self-checkouts are the one option that will allow them to exit as soon as possible, they'll probably go and self-checkout."

'Vote with our feet'

But not everyone has embraced self-checkout during the pandemic. Determined to have a cashier ring in his goods, Kerwin said he paid cash and that during one of his Shoppers visits, his girlfriend, Colleen Pilger, left the store and went to a nearby bank to get enough cash so they could us the cashier option.

Kerwin said he should have the choice to pay by debit or credit even when paying at the cash register during the pandemic, so he won't be returning to Shoppers any time soon.

"All we can do is vote with our feet," he said. "I would highly encourage people to not shop at those places that don't allow you to deal with a cashier using a debit or credit card.

Despite some customers' resistance, self-checkouts may become even more ubiquitous as stores continue to embrace automation.

Currently, retail giants Walmart and Amazon are trying out large-scale stores without cashiers in the U.S. Amazon has set up a full-size grocery store in Seattle with no employees involved in the checkout process.

"Technology is going to become a much more important part of the overall retail landscape, whether it's self-checkouts or completely cashierless," said Marion Chan, a consumer analyst at TrendSpotter Consulting in Toronto. "In the long term, the technology will win."

Even so, customer complaints about self-checkout may be resonating with some retailers.

Walmart has opened a cashierless store in Fayetteville, Ark., that offers 34 self-checkout stations. However, the retailer says customers can still ask an employee to scan their goods. (Walmart )

Walmart's new cashierless store in Fayetteville, Ark., includes more than 30 self-checkout machines placed in a giant U-formation. However, customers can still request that an employee, called a "host," scan their goods for them at self-checkout and even bag their items.

"It's the host's job to make sure the checkout experiences are exactly what customers want them to be," said Walmart in a statement.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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