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Ageism in the Self-Checkout Lane: How Technology (Plus the Lack of Human Interaction) Leaves Older Adults Behind

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We live in an era where technology appears to be taking over. Whether it’s trying to pay for groceries in the self-check line, trying to pay the bill at your local coffee shop, or ordering at a restaurant using a table-top device, things that used to be simple seem to be getting more complicated – all in the interest of “efficiency.” Well, if you’ve been feeling the frustrating effects of technological overload, you’ll resonate with this article we recently found on the NextAvenue website. 

In it, nationally-known author and speaker Robert Laura writes about the subtle form of ageism represented by much of today’s new tech, and he offers some ideas that we think retailers and others who care about older customers should take to heart. We also think the article offers a helpful topic for you younger readers to discuss with your older and more tech-challenged loved ones. Maybe you can help them navigate this brave new world of technology.

Expanding Technology Meets a Shrinking Labor Force

Laura begins: “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.” He calls it “Self-checkout Ageism”, something easily spotted at any grocery store, café, or retail business.

To explain, Laura tells a personal story of meeting a friend for breakfast. When they arrived at the coffee shop, he 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.” Laura scrolled through “what felt like a dozen screens” just to order a small coffee, and paid using a sketchy system that required him to use two different debit cards and multiple swipes. “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,” Laura recalls.

But the real revelation came moments later, when Laura—now seated—noticed an older gentleman approach the same “no staff” sign. “He appeared confused as he moved over to the kiosk and tiny tablet sitting on the counter,” Laura writes. “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.”

Older Adults Face Technological Discrimination

Laura watched a few other senior adults try to navigate the same coffee kiosk, and it only deepened his blunt diagnosis of the problem: self-checkouts discriminate against older adults, “hands down”. But they are becoming increasingly common in stores, both as a way to utilize technology and as a way to deal with worker shortages.

Older adults are frequently left behind by technology that seems not to notice their needs. Laura writes that seniors have to deal with “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.”

The issue goes back to the initial design of the technology itself. Laura notes 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.”

Statistics Don’t Tell the Whole Story

This difficulty may not be reflected correctly in the media, especially by studies and polls. We’ve written before here on the AgingOptions blog about the rapid adoption of technology by older adults.  Pew Research polls often tout that two-thirds of adults 65 and over now use the Internet, older adults are using social media at increasing rates, and the smartphone ownership among seniors is rising exponentially. 

“All key aspects to bridging what some people call the digital divide between older and younger adults,” Laura writes, but he adds: “what these numbers fail to provide is the level of digital literacy or efficiency with which these groups use the various forms of technology.” Besides, we can’t help but seeing in these statistics that there are still tens of millions of seniors being left farther behind as the train of tech rolls down the track at increasing speed.

The Challenges of the Self-Checkout

It would be one thing if this was just an issue at small coffee shops and boutiques. But Laura points out that a similar scenario unfolds at grocery stores and other essential services all the time. “Typically,” he explains, “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.”

Laura is quick to acknowledge that there are many older adults who are proficient at the self-checkout, and he’s also aware that some younger people often face difficulties with the kiosks as well. “[B]ut there are gaps in the process that in my opinion handicaps older adults and can leave them feeling frustrated, isolated and even embarrassed,” he says.

Feeling Intimidated and Pressured

Once again, Laura points out that the design of self-checkout kiosks is crafted more to streamline a process than make the shopper feel at ease. One obvious design feature is the light above the kiosk that flashes red or yellow when an attendant is needed. For some older adults, these lights can feel like a “dunce hat”, a way of being shamed if they miss a bar code, can’t find the right screen shot of their fresh fruit, or generally don’t react quickly enough to the prompts on the screen.

Studies back this up. “One study by UK housing authority, Anchor, found one in four older shoppers find self-service supermarket checkouts intimidating and unfriendly,” Laura writes. “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.”  

The Missing Need: Human Interaction

And that is a major issue in the self-checkout conundrum: older adults often crave the interaction that a shopping trip can provide them, however brief.

While some seniors have opted to use grocery delivery services to avoid in-store technology, these services come with their own issues. Laura explains, “[T]hese 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.”

And human interaction is suffering on more than just a technological front. Laura points to poor customer service as another factor for the difficulties older adults are facing. “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,” Laura writes. “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,” Laura states. “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.”

Are there clear-cut answers to these questions? Not exactly. But Laura gives a list of ideas in his article that he would like for retailers to consider, and we will summarize them here:

  • Use Volunteers: retailers could consider partnership programs where younger people can help older people with their shopping experience, relieving pressure on the employees and potentially offering incentives to those who want to help.
  • Start customer service clubs for older adults: “By offering targeted times and services to help meet their needs, [stores] can adjust staffing, and likely charge a small premium for the extra service and help retain one of the wealthiest segments of the population.”
  • Utilize multiple tech platforms: Accessibility options could be provided in certain areas of the store, including styluses rather than touchscreens, voice dictation, headphones, or bigger screens with larger fonts. Laura adds, “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.”

We’re not sure about you, but better accessibility, improved human interaction, and a cup of something hot and cozy sounds like progress to us! 

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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