On Tuesday a German newspaper breathlessly described the advancement of a new technology into the shops of Hamburg – the self-service checkout terminal.
One stereotype about Germans that we at The Local have often tried to disabuse readers of is the idea that they are a people at the cutting edge of technology. In fact, Germans have proved themselves time and again to be rather suspicious of technological advances – especially when they have to do with shopping.
With so many German businesses still refusing to take card payments, it should perhaps come as little surprise that they are yet to adapt to the concept of self-checkout.
On Tuesday, the Hamburger Abendblatt (HA) dedicated a lengthy feature article to the Self-Checkout-Kassen and their increased use in the port city over recent months.
On a visit to a branch of the clothing retailer Zara, which installed self-checkout terminals in its stores in December, an HA journalist found that none of the customers in the shop were using the technology. Instead they were waiting patiently in long lines at the manned terminals.
“This is a very new feature. Word hasn’t really spread about it yet,” an employee at the shop explained.
Slowly though, self-service terminals are becoming more common throughout the Bundesrepublik. While in 2015 some 295 businesses nationwide had the terminals installed, by November last year 488 shops were making use of them, a recent study by the EHI Retail Institute in Cologne shows.
“The significant increase within just two years shows how important this technology is becoming for German retailers,” Frank Horst, author of the study, said in a statement.
But the technology is still very much in its infancy in Germany. While there are roughly 200,000 cashiers in food stores across the country, there are still only 1,450 self-service terminals.
Supermarket Rewe is considered a trailblazer in Germany because it started trialling self-service checkouts way back in 2012. It now has a grand total of 62 self-service terminals across its 3,500 stores.
But Rewe spokesman Thomas Bonrath has reassured Germans that the technology won’t sweep over them all at once.
“We aren’t planning a wholesale roll out, we will just be deploying them selectively,” he told the HA.
So why have Germans been so slow to pick up on a technology that was first rolled out in other countries in the last century?
For Martin Fassnacht, a professor at the WHU business school in Düsseldorf, the answer is simple.
“Germans find it particularly difficult to get used to new things,” he said explaining why self-service checkout has long since established itself in France, the UK and Sweden but not in Deutschland. “Many Germans simply don’t see the point,” he told the HA.
But, according to a spokeswoman for the the trade union Ver.di, Germans are also wise to the fact that the self-service checkouts are at least partly an attempt by supermarkets to load them with more work while reducing costs.
“The self-service terminals are an attempt – just like online shopping – to make the customer do more work,” Ver.di spokeswoman Heike Lattekamp told the HA. “The aim is to reduce the number of people in employment.”
“It is already the case today that the cashier is sometimes the only staff member that a shopper meets in the supermarket,” she added.
In the UK, where the technology has been well established for at least a decade, customer surveys show that shoppers often hate self-service and see it as an attempt on the part of supermarkets to cut costs. And it is not just the customer that ought to be wary. A separate survey carried out in Britain in 2014 showed that one in five people admitted to shopliftingat self-service checkouts, adding up to around €2 billion of items every year.
Still though, one wonders if the German cashier, famed for their penchant for scanning items at a speed which appears to defy Einstein’s theory of relativity, could do with a little help from a late 20th century technology.