Helping out at the supermarket

Self-service in the retail world has come a long way in recent years.

I still remember when it required a partially toothed half-wit to pump gas into your car. Now, we dispense it into our own tank, and all over our clothes, with no assistance at all.

Fast-food restaurants used to pour drinks for us. Now, we do it ourselves at a free-standing fountain, and come away with a bonus application of industrial-strength adhesive on the soles of our shoes. If Earth’s gravity ever fails, you won’t see McDonald’s customers floating off into space, because they have sugary soft drinks all over the bottom of their feet.

Most of these advances represent a measure of progress for humanity. Businesses are able to save money by deploying workers to more cost-effective tasks, like sitting at home unemployed and watching TV. Store patrons can take better command of their time, moving swiftly to complete their transactions or, in the case of the woman always in front of me at Texaco, talking into the gas nozzle like it was a telephone, trying to tell the clerk inside that she forgot her purse.

One place where I think the jury is still out on the issue of convenience is the grocery store self-checkout. No longer do you have to stand in line to have a cashier wave your purchases over a scanner. You can do it yourself at U-Scan stations. On-screen prompts and pre-programmed voice commands guide you through the steps necessary to complete your transaction and, when this fails, a store employee descends from her centrally located turret to explain how wrong it was of you to jam your credit card into the receipt printer.

I don’t mind pitching in with the operation of my local supermarket. My sore back prevents me from going to the loading dock to help unpack their trucks, but I’d be more than happy to sneeze on the produce as I’m arranging it on the shelves. It takes a lot of effort to run that large a business and I’ll gladly do my part.

If only I can figure how the U-Scan is supposed to work.

It’s a bit daunting when you first step up to one of these hulking machines. There’s a large touch screen where you start by selecting your language (English is my personal favorite). If you’re in the frequent customer program and can find the appropriate card to prove as much, you swipe that past the laser reader and hear something like “welcome BiLo Bonus Card customer.” If you’re just an average citizen looking to buy a pound of coffee, I think there are provisions allowing you to proceed, though you may need a special dispensation from the regional manager.

Once you’ve been identified as friend or stranger, you begin passing your items over the scanner, turning them every which way until the barcode is detected and a reassuring beep is issued from the machine. (If you’ve turned a carton of eggs upside down to find the code and the eggs come tumbling out onto the floor, don’t worry. The customer in line behind you is taking the job of “cleanup at U-Scan station four” this week).

After each beep, the pre-recorded voice instructs you to “please place the item in the bag.” Plastic sack dispensers sit off to the side, and scales beneath these detect whether or not you’ve complied. If you’re buying something too big to fit in a flimsy plastic bag, too bad. Just cram that lawn rake in there as best you can, or prepare to explain yourself to the authorities.

You repeat this procedure for as many items as you intend to buy. (Fujitsu, the makers of U-Scan, claim to be developing a new generation of machines that will scan your whole shopping cart in one fell swoop, though I suspect we’ll see a man on Mars first). When you think you’re finished, the machine wants to make sure, because it still remembers that time you bought $150 worth of groceries, then drove off and left them at the curb.

“Do you have any items under the cart?” it asks helpfully.

“I don’t even have a cart,” I answer because, on this occasion, I’m buying only three things.

Now comes the hard part: the paying. The touch screen shows an overwhelming number of options — credit card, debit card, check, food stamps, gift card, cash, voucher. I’m trying to find “barter” because I want to trade a box of old Beanie Babies for my two frozen dinners and a bag of chips, but it’s not there. Finally, I choose credit card, as I don’t want to go through the ordeal I once endured of trying to use cash. (“Please enter coins first, from smallest to largest denomination. If you enter more than one coin of the same denomination, tender these by the date on the coin, with the oldest coins first. When entering bills, do so in chronological order by the birthdate of the historical figure portrayed on the bill. And good luck finding either the coin or the bill slot.”)

I swipe my credit card at yet another monitor to the side of the touch screen.

“Is $12.37 the correct amount?” reads a new display. I want to say that it seems a little high, that I thought prices would come down a little now that I’m doing all this work for them. But I’m given no such option.

Past experience tells me that I now have to find a third pad to record my signature, using the specially designed stylus provided for the occasion. Or maybe not. Some stores no longer require you to sign for purchases under $25 while others want not only your John Hancock (born 1737, featured on the rare $30 bill) but also several forms of identification to prove yourself. I stand by waiting to be told what to do next, ready to obey any command short of “kill”.

Finally, a couple of printers kick into action, indicating my receipt is ready as is the raft of coupons for products the computer knows I’ll want on my next visit. This is where you see another advantage of today’s obsessive data collection by scanners and customer-loyalty programs. Because I bought a bag of nonfat potato chips, shown in tests to promote frequent diarrhea, the computer suggests I may want to benefit from a coupon on Pepto-Bismol in a few days. Very impressive.

I do a little scanning myself, checking each portal and terminal in the array before me to confirm that I’m indeed done and can now leave the store. I glance over at the attendant, and she gives me a reassuring nod, and I think I’m finished.

However, the bag boy at the cashier-staffed line next to the U-Scan area has a temporary lull in his workload, and thinks he sees an opportunity for being tipped by an aging gentleman unable to carry his parcel to his car. He approaches with an offer to help.

I politely decline, wondering how much longer his job is secure with the eventual development of Roomba-style robots to automatically carry me to my car.

A typical self-checkout machine, or possibly the controls to a nuclear reactor.
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One Response to “Helping out at the supermarket”

  1. breezyk Says:

    haha I hate these things! I’ve actually read that a lot of places are phasing them out because real cashiers are much faster.. I believe it!

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