The Wiki Man

The trick that makes self-checkouts almost tolerable

After years of misery, I’ve finally realised that I was being nudged the wrong way

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

I spent the last few days in Deal and Folkestone with Professor Richard Thaler at Nudgestock, Ogilvy’s seaside festival of Behavioural Science. On my way home I decided to stop off at M&S to buy some runny scotch eggs and a pie, accompanied by some unwanted green things to make my basket look middle-class. Finding a long queue at the main checkout, I grudgingly took my goods to the self-checkout machines.

(For the uninitiated, Richard Thaler is the co-author of Nudge, and more recently the author of Misbehaving. He is perhaps the godfather of behavioural economics, a dissident strand of economics which holds the outlandish view that the discipline might have something to learn from observing the behaviour of real people in everyday life, rather than concentrating on the serious business of constructing elegant mathematical models unsullied by any contact with humanity. Central to his work is the demonstration that small contextual cues — or ‘nudges’ — can have very significant effects, for good and ill, on people’s behaviour.)


Anyhow, some of Thaler’s magical aura had clearly transferred to me. Because just as I was about to start the usual infuriating and demeaning business of scanning my own shopping, I had a lightbulb moment. Suddenly I spotted what was wrong with the whole self-checkout malarkey. In short, the design of the machine contains a bad nudge. Above the weighing platform where you place your scanned shopping, two prongs stick out, with the handles of carrier bags looped over them. The inference you draw is that you are supposed to place your items into one of these bags after scanning. No doubt this was the designer’s original intention. Under no circumstances should you respond to this cue — as that way disaster lies. Instead try placing the scanned items unbagged on the platform, and bag them up only after you have paid.

The superiority of the Thaler-Sutherland postulate lies, I think, in the fact that any collection of items in a bag is inherently unstable. Since the weighing platform is designed to detect the weight of a gnat, each time your shopping settles or shifts within the bag, it drives the machine into spasms, where it will start saying things like ‘opening the pod bay doors’ or, more usually, ‘unidentified object in the bagging area’. If you change the order from scan-bag-weigh-pay to scan-weigh-pay-bag, and ignore the seductive siren-call of the two prongs, the experience is surprisingly tolerable. In fact the likelihood that you will be arrested for repeatedly punching a machine and shouting ‘fuck!’ is significantly reduced.

Just as I was looking forward to the appearance of Welsh artisan-made Laverbread & Glengettie flavoured e-smoking liquids, some killjoy at the Welsh Assembly is planning to ban the use of e-cigarettes in closed public spaces, or wherever smoking is banned. This is daft. At work, someone asked what our company policy was on vaping; my response was that it did not much matter if we had a rule on smoking e-cigarettes but that if we did, it must be markedly less strict than the rule for conventional smoking… perhaps we should open a vaping room. My argument was that if you made people go outside to vape, they would think, ‘Well, since I’m now here standing in the rain, I might as well have a full-blown fag instead.’ I don’t know what the Welsh for ‘path dependence’ is, but someone in Cardiff should start researching it now. If you have the same rule for vaping as for smoking, it’s like holding a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in a pub — forcing people who are trying to quit to gather in the places where it is easiest to lapse.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Paul

    Can I just correct you on something. You don’t ‘smoke’ e-cigarettes, you vape them. The very word ‘cigarette’ is misleading when used in association with them, and it’s about time they changed the wording of these devices to cease any confusion the uninitiated may have, and also to stop vaping devices from being associated with cigarettes.

    • rorysutherland

      Fair point.

    • olhg1

      “Vape” from vaporize? So one inhales nicotine vapors? With the exception of several dozen cancer causing elements, what’s the difference?

  • Aldo

    M&S self service is just the worst of the bunch, poorly responsive as if it’s running off last decade’s microprocessor, then that suckerpunch at the end that charges you for a basic plastic bag. It leaves you looking at £20 worth of chocolate milk, crisps and steak and wondering if you’ve really paid for said bag…it’s an ethical question straight from 4th year PPE.

    The bag step actually helps when accompanied by my two year old who insists in having whatever catches her fancy at Waitrose, where they let you leave the shopping loose before the bag step. Put it in the bag at M&S and she can’t get her fingers on the shopping and remove it, bringing on the flashing red lights.

  • olhg1

    Are the check-out machines the same as those in Europe?

    • Mary Ann

      More or less. I like the ones in my local French supermarket, because they don’t give away bags your post scan shopping is placed in a large high sided box so no falling off when you buy more that three items.

  • On dear, on the screen there is a light that goes from green to red, when on green you can bag stuff and remove stuff from the scales and when on red there is a problem, knowing that the scale is not measuring aculmlatively you then know that using the self checkout is easy.

  • Sausage McMuffin

    The only way to deal a with self-service checkout is to ask one of the many staff that loiter in their vicinity to come and do the job for you. Thereby ensuring the whole point of the thing is subverted.

    I’m convinced these machines are a symptom of our society’s terminal decline, along with the requirement to talk to uniteligible numpties in Indian call centres for the simplest banking or utility query, and people who bring their children (all of which have ADHD) to proper restaurants and then let them run wild. Hit: that’s what McDonalds is for.

    • aspeckofboggart

      that evening at mcdonald’s that’s what i wanted to do to 2 kids: hit them with a big mac. except mac’s cost a fortune. i had eaten the fries before they came or i would pelt them with a few of those.

    • You mean the Indian respondents called (bless ’em) Brandy and Colin?

  • justlookin

    I accessed one of these checkout-only shops in Shoreditch the morning after a night at the theatre. At least customers are now beginning to talk to each other given there is no one else around.

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