The Real Reason for Self-Checkout Bans

It isn't about stopping crime—it's about protecting a favored constituency's jobs.


The recent wave of headlines about shoplifting and retail theft, accompanied by viral videos of people brazenly walking out of stores with stolen goods, has captured the attention of the media and politicians. The tough-on-crime crowd has advocated for a crackdown on shoplifters through more aggressive prosecution and harsher penalties. Others have emphasized the need for rehabilitation for offenders. 

One group of progressive California lawmakers claims to have found an even better solution: banning self-checkout machines from stores in the name of fighting crime. In reality, this "anti-crime" bill is nothing more than naked protectionism for union jobs. 

The proposed legislation would prohibit groceries and other retail stores from using self-checkout machines unless a host of conditions are met. These include having at least one staffed employee for every two self-checkout machines (and the employee must be exempt from any other duties), only permitting the machines to be used by shoppers with 10 items or fewer, and ensuring at least one regular cashier lane is also available at all times.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D–Los Angeles), calls her approach "smart" on crime instead of "hard on crime," telling The New York Times: "We have so many bills in this Legislature that are trying to increase penalties….We know that what makes our community safe is not more jail time and penalties. What makes our community safe is real enforcement, having real workers that are on the floor." 

To underscore her point, Smallwood-Cuevas cites a study suggesting that retail theft is up to 16 times more likely to occur at self-checkout machines than at traditional registers, leading to an estimated $10 billion in annual losses for retailers. 

A closer look at the fine print of the bill, however, reveals the true intent behind it. The legislation mandates that any store seeking to install self-checkout machines must first produce a study analyzing, among other things, the number of employees "whose duties would be affected by the workplace technology," as well as the "total amount of salaries and benefits that would be eliminated as a result of the workplace technology." The study must then be provided to employees potentially impacted by the technology (or their collective bargaining representatives) and posted "in a location accessible to employees and customers."

Were this a game of poker, this mandated study would be the tell: Smallwood-Cuevas and her fellow progressives are trying to tuck a pro–union jobs bill inside the Trojan horse of crime prevention. 

Smallwood-Cuevas was a labor organizer before her legislative career, and some of the bill's biggest sponsors are labor unions. A press release on the United Food and Commercial Workers' website lauds the legislation, with the president of the local chapter complaining that "employers have increasingly implemented automated checkout to drastically cut staffing and reduce labor costs." The press release does not mention the word crime at all and only uses theft twice and shoplifting once. In contrast, jobs, staffing, and worker displacement are referenced a total of 10 times. 

Efforts to limit self-checkout in other blue states provide corroborating evidence, such as a proposed anti-self-checkout ballot initiative in Oregon that labor interests tried to get on the 2020 ballot, explicitly positioned as a pro–union jobs measure. 

While a pro-labor bill in California may seem utterly unremarkable, some on the right may be buying the bill's anti-crime framing. Both Fox Business and the New York Post ran articles highlighting the bill as an anti-theft measure, with little reference to the real motivations behind the legislation. Given the right's increasing embrace of labor unions, it is not hard to envision an unholy alliance of pro-labor progressives and tough-on-crime populist conservatives supporting bills around the country to eliminate self-checkout.

Supporters of the bill and numerous media outlets have cited two examples of large retail chains making their own internal decisions to reduce or remove self-checkout machines to clamp down on theft. The aforementioned statistics about self-checkout lanes leading to more shoplifting are also frequently referenced. But these points ironically cut against the need for government involvement: If self-checkout machines are really leading to massive inventory losses for stores, then retailers themselves have a direct bottom-line incentive to scrap self-checkout. 

No one cares more about inventory loss than store owners, whose entire business model is predicated on customers actually paying money for their products. That is why some retailers are reevaluating the efficacy of self-checkout and experimenting with new monitoring tactics such as "smart video" cameras that can halt the self-checkout process if they notice a customer declining to scan any items. 

There already is a built-in market response to theft concerns around self-checkout—more government interference is simply not needed. If lawmakers still want to ban self-checkout machines anyway, they should at least be honest about why.