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Ageism in the Self-checkout Lane

It's time to raise awareness about how technology frustrations and lack of human interaction can be detrimental to older adults

By Robert Laura

There's a new form of ageism taking root and it appears to be an unintended consequence of both technology and a shrinking labor market. I refer to it as Self-checkout Ageism and it can be witnessed at major grocery store chains, coffee shops, and retailers. 

An older adult checking out at a self check out kiosk. Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

I recently met a friend for breakfast and was surprised to see a note at the counter that said due to staffing shortages, the only option was to order at one of the kiosks. So, I proceeded to scroll through what felt like a dozen screens to order a small black coffee. Then I had to pay, which took several swipes with two different debit cards. It left me feeling a little uneasy as I had no receipt to prove whether I just bought one coffee or a weeks' worth of them. 

As I took a seat and waited for my friend, that's when the challenges facing older adults reared its ugly head. I noticed a gentleman walk up to the counter and stand there for a couple minutes before seeing the "no staff" sign. He appeared confused as he moved over to the kiosk and tiny tablet sitting on the counter. Then he realized he didn't have his reading glasses, and started yo-yoing his head back and forth, squinting and then opening his eyes wide to try and navigate the menu. It wasn't long before he gave up and left.

Many people turn to the self-checkouts which, hands down, discriminate against older adults.

Shortly thereafter, an older couple came in and tried to order on the kiosk as well. It was a slow process that seemed to cause some friction between them. You could hear them exchange comments like "Let me see," "No, go back," "Click right there." As you might expect, there were also several death stares from younger customers.

One complication is the fact that most software and device designers are young twenty-somethings who don't realize that some older adults struggle with vision, hearing and/or manual dexterity. In other words, they get emails and texts they can't always see, audio that may be hard to hear, buttons that are too small to push or screens that work too fast. Furthermore, they miss the personal interaction that a face-to-face encounter provides for them. 

However, mainstream research doesn't paint the same picture. Popular studies and polls suggest older Americans are adopting technology at the fastest rates ever. 

Studies by Pew Research found that:

All key aspects to bridging what some people call the digital divide between older and younger adults, but what these numbers fail to provide is the level of digital literacy or efficiency with which these groups use the various forms of technology. 

The Challenges of the Self-checkout

The issue isn't just reserved for small, coffee-shop kiosks. Something similar unfolds at the grocery store almost every time I'm in there.

Typically, there is only one normal check-out line with a cashier scanning groceries. As a result, the line is long and can add significant time to a simple shopping trip. So, many people turn to the self-checkouts which, hands down, discriminate against older adults.

I'm not saying every older adult can't effectively check out or that younger people don't struggle as well, but there are gaps in the process that in my opinion handicaps older adults and can leave them feeling frustrated, isolated and even embarrassed.

Recently, I was at the store when an older lady went to a self-checkout and began scanning her items. When she went to pay, she suddenly realized that the machine she picked was a pay-by-card only and wouldn't accept her cash. It looked like she wanted to cry and the cashier wasn't exactly helpful as she scuttled her to another machine to re-scan everything.


Feeling Intimidated and Pressured

It can also feel like the lights above the self-checkout kiosks are similar to the old "dunce hat" teachers used decades ago to try and shame kids into behaving better. Well, some kids had issues that weren't going to be resolved by making a mockery of them. But that's what many older adults get when they go to the grocery store and the red or yellow attendant light is flashing because they missed a bar code, can't find the right vegetable on the screen or don't want to lift a case of water out of the basket to slide across the counter three or four times.

It can be "quite a miserable experience" if the older adults don't get an opportunity to say "hello" to a single person during their shopping experience.

One study by UK housing authority, Anchor, found one in four older shoppers find self-service supermarket checkouts intimidating and unfriendly. The authors of the study also suggest that automated checkouts can make customers feel under pressure if they don't respond quickly enough to the instructions and that it can be "quite a miserable experience" if the older adults don't get an opportunity to say "hello" to a single person during their shopping experience.  

Some people may be quick to respond with solutions and services like Shipt and curbside pick-up to help older adults. However, these services are offered online, don't provide human interaction, and many boomers and older adults are brand loyal. Therefore, they don't want a grocery cart full of
off-brand or generic replacements if something they like or want isn't in stock.

The retail challenge for older adults also spills over into poor customer service as well. I've been in major home improvement stores, electronics stores and clothing giants, to see people of all ages walking around like zombies, looking for someone, anyone to help them find or get something.  However, it seems particularly pronounced for older adults who can't zip up and down aisles as much and who are less likely to check for an item online and see which aisle or bay it may be in.

How The Process Can Be Improved

I'm not here to point fingers, but rather to raise awareness. To point out that no matter what the cause may be, going to the store or getting a coffee shouldn't be hard, frustrating or embarrassing for anyone, especially older adults. While there may not be a single, clear-cut answer to solving this emerging crisis, there are several factors to consider:   

  • Ask for volunteers. Reality is, not all younger people simply sit there frustrated by slower scrolling or typing from older adults. I’ve seen several kind-hearted souls, including myself, jump in to help those less savvy. So why not organize a way for one generation to help another while providing some much-needed human interaction. Whether you can partner up with an older adult to go around the entire store, or you can cut to the front of the line if you help someone else, kindness and patience at any level can go a long way.
  • While a grass-roots volunteer program may take time to develop, shops and retailers can also develop customer service clubs for older adults. By offering targeted times and services to help meet their needs, they can adjust staffing, and likely charge a small premium for the extra service and help retain one of the wealthiest segments of the population. 
  • Offering multiple sources of technology in designated areas may also go a long way in helping older adults enjoying shopping more. For example, giving older adults the option to use a stylus rather than touching the screen, offering voice dictation, bigger screens with larger fonts or external speakers or headphones for easier listening. All of this could be located in an area for them and their peers that should likely include places to sit, visit, and maybe even enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. 
Robert Laura is a bestselling author, nationally syndicated columnist and founder of the Retirement Coaches Association and He is a seasoned conference speaker and trainer as well as a pioneer in “The New Era Of Retirement” which focuses on the non-financial aspects of life after work. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Read More
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