Bagging your own groceries doesn’t make you a tool of corporate greed

When shopping for groceries, I almost always use the self-checkout line. I confess that I did not consider the broader social and economic implications of my choice until Tom Chamberlain enlightened me.

Chamberlain, who is the Oregon president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industry Organizations, announced last week that his organization will soon be collecting signatures for a voting initiative that would ban grocery stores from operating more than two automatic checkouts in one time. His arguments for imposing this restriction pave the way for a world in which efficiency-enhancing innovations are automatically suspect, regardless of their popularity.

Chamberlain’s Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act complains that “self-service checkouts essentially turn customers into unpaid employees.” But if buyers universally revolted against the idea of ​​digitizing and packing their own groceries, a law like this would hardly be needed.

Personally, I prefer self-service because I like to organize my groceries in a logical way, which makes it easier to store them once I get home. And while I’m pretty good at gossip (a skill developed over the years when self-service queues were less common), I might as well avoid the effort.

I recognize that others do not necessarily share my preferences.

“Grocery stores provide many people with their primary place of social connection and sense of community,” explains Chamberlain’s voting initiative, which argues that “the increasing use of self-checkout … is contributing to the social isolation and the resulting negative health consequences ”.

As grocery stores with self-checkout lines still provide live cashiers for people who enjoy gossip, this objection seems suspect. Chamberlain is not so much concerned with ensuring the availability of a social connection at the supermarket as with limiting the options of buyers who find company elsewhere.

Equally dubious is the Oregon AFL-CIO’s claim that “self-service checkouts are often used by teens to purchase alcohol”. When I buy beer or wine at the checkout, an employee comes to check my age, so it hardly seems like an intractable problem.

In case you’re not convinced that automatic checkouts lead to social isolation and widespread adolescent alcoholism, the AFL-CIO of Oregon, getting closer to the heart of its complaint, also argues that they hurt employees (and union members) by lowering morale, cutting jobs and replacing full-time positions with part-time ones. In addition, “the growing use of self-service checkouts is having a disproportionately negative impact on people of color.”

Obviously, shoppers who use the self-checkout line are not just anti-social; they can also be racist, or at least insensitive to race. Yet Chamberlain’s logic condemns not only self-service checkouts in grocery stores, but all kinds of innovations that improve efficiency, lower prices, and increase consumer satisfaction.

As my colleague from Reason, Christian Britschgi recently noted, the self-service grocery stores Americans have taken for granted since the turn of the 20th century, which allow them to choose their own purchases rather than relying on clerks for them. recover, have also cut some jobs. while saving time and money.

Grocers, especially the more modest ones, have also benefited from huge increases in agricultural productivity that have lowered food prices while still being able to feed a growing population even as the number of Americans working on farms has grown from 12 million in 1910 to less than 2 million today.

If “job losses” were a good reason to dictate the products and services businesses can offer, we would have to do without a long list of modern conveniences, including ATMs, vending machines, fast food restaurants, computers, smartphones, video streaming, e-books and online retail. Yet these innovations are ultimately good for employees as well as consumers: they can kill jobs, but they also create jobs both directly and indirectly, leaving consumers and businesses with more money to spend. and to invest.

Assuming the AFL-CIO initiative qualifies for the 2020 poll, can Oregonians be counted on to see past its economic illogical? Since it is still illegal in most of Oregon to pump your own gasoline, maybe not.

Jacob Sullum is editor-in-chief at Reason magazine.

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