As Woolworths Bulli officially celebrated its new-look store on Wednesday, the increase in their self-service checkouts continues to cause debate in the community. But are they here to stay?
Not all the Wollongong shoppers we spoke were as convinced as the experts, but more on that later.
Two academics unpack the ethical concerns of letting AI-enabled machines take over, how it's good for business and whether robot restaurants (as seen in Japan) will likely takeover the Illawarra and the world.
Love or hate them, Katina Michael and Roba Abbas from the University of Wollongong's faculty of Business and Law agree machines like self-serve checkouts were cemented in our future, but there needed to be a balance between the benefits and the negative impacts.
"From the business perspective, there are clear benefits, such as the speed associated with serving customers, potentially resulting in speedier transactions, while also transferring labour to customers," Dr Abbas said.
"There are some organisations that may explore fully automated options while others will have some kind of hybrid option combining the virtual and the physical."
But some customers find them frustrating and difficult to use, particularly if they have a large number of items or if the checkout malfunctions. There are also concerns about job losses, as fewer staff are needed to manage the checkouts, while there's still that lack of human interaction.
West Wollongong's Maree and Jeff Denny sit comfortably in the anti self-serve checkout community.
"I haven't used [self-serve checkouts] since they've been introduced and we won't," a defiant Maree said.
"They seem to get used a lot, especially in Kmart because there's only maybe a couple of people serving but I'll just stand in line, even if I've got to wait half an hour, I won't use them."
Her partner Jeff was of similar mind.
"You build up a bit of a relationship with the staff ... so you feel comfortable in being able to talk to the staff," he said.
"I'd prefer to have that human interaction."
And that's exactly where Dr Michael, who prefers not to engage with self-serve checkouts, is coming from, too.
"We are missing that [socialisation] if we're interacting more with machines," Dr Michael said.
"I'd rather speak to the checkout person at the local IGA that I've known for 20 years now and ask how their daughter is going and how the grandkids are."
Mangerton's Carol Bassett agrees.
"I just like to go to somebody who's actually got a job. I think everyone deserves a job you know and we do it for that reason."
"You get to know them too. You know we do quite often have conversations, but not an extended one, just while it's all happening."
Theft is another big issue retailers face, as research now reveals these machines have resulted in more people stealing by not scanning items, switching labels or swiping a different product when employees weren't watching, the academics said.
They're also not suited to everyone - such as those living with disabilities, non-English speakers, and those with visual impairments - as they could pose accessibility issues, Dr Abbas said.
And the IT divide between the generations was on the mind of Gwynneville shopper, Darcy Barber.
"I prefer self-serve definitely. I think it's definitely easier, more convenient [and] a bit quicker. Sometimes, I don't feel like talking to people," he said.
"I think they definitely need people at cash registers for people who struggle with technologies and stuff like that. I think there is a good balance at the moment."
People who run a mile from self-service checkouts shouldn't fear, as three of Australia's biggest retailers have assured Mercury readers they will always have human hands on deck.
"We know everyone likes to shop differently, which is why we offer our customers both assisted and self-service checkouts," said Ben Camire, of Bunnings.
"Customers are free to choose the option that best suits them based on their personal preferences."
The convenience factor is key for two Wollongong shoppers who spoke to the Mercury.
"If I'm in a hurry, and if I have like less than 10 [items] I always use self-service checkouts," Mount Saint Thomas' Melanie Karunaratne.
Joshua Press, from Gwynneville, agreed: "Personally, I just find them easier and definitely quicker I think."
A Coles spokeswoman said self-service was the "preferred" method for their customers due to "convenience and efficiency".
"The roll-out of self-checkouts means we are able to open more checkouts for customers during the week, reducing queuing time," the spokeswoman said.
"Of course, if a customer would prefer to be served by a team member they are still available to happily serve them at the checkout."
Over the past 12 months, she said, they have seen greater customer satisfaction and uptake in Coles' self-service options since completing upgrades across more than 800 stores, and rolling out trolley self-checkouts with conveyor belts in over 300 stores.
Meantime, Target aims to have 85 stores across Australia to have "assisted" checkouts by June 30 because their customers have said "they like the choice, speed and consistency of experience".
But there are still those people, like Dr Michael, who aren't keen on becoming an honorary employee nor have cameras watch them to prevent theft.
"We've become an unpaid worker through the checkout, under surveillance," Dr Michael said.
"But I think big companies will continue to test as many different check-out solutions as possible. You may have [businesses] who will have completely automated checkouts without even the need to scan individual products through wireless reader units."
But checkouts aren't the only self-service businesses are using.
Scanning a QR code at a restaurant table to order or from a flyer to enter a competition, using a self-serve machine to pay for parking or to buy a Big Mac or logging onto the Service NSW app to pay your registration - these are all alternate forms of a self-service checkout.
Both academics believe that AI-enabled machines will help to fill skill shortages, such as in health or aged care. They might replace some jobs, but they said roles in other areas would be created.
So should Illawarra foodies expect their favourite burger joint to roll out robots like at restaurants in Japan because of hospitality shortages? Probably not in the immediate future.
"I am concerned, personally, about the loss of human connection," Dr Michael said. "Even if it comes out perfect, do I really want my burger being made by a non-human?"
Dr Abbas added that unless companies were engaging in responsible and human-centered design of these systems, whatever they implement won't cater to humans unless they're involved in the process of co-designing the systems.
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