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Supermarket self-checkout: No thanks, I already have a job

Consumer Reports News: February 08, 2010 05:32 PM

It’s bad enough having to go through traditional checkout lines at the store.

But somewhere along the way, some corporate executive decided that the whole experience would be better by eliminating the cashier and letting people check themselves out.

That executive was wrong.

In my experience, self-checkout scanners at supermarkets, home improvement stores and elsewhere have just made paying for your merchandise more frustrating.

Now, instead of having human cashiers who know what they’re doing (at least much of the time), you get a machine, which typically has no clue.

“Put the item in the bag,” the electronic voice says. “Take the item out of the bag.” “Unexpected item in bagging area.” What was it expecting, borscht?

And then there’s the electronic, supermarket equivalent of the death knell: “Call an associate for help.”

At one supermarket where I sometimes shop, the signs above these machines say “Express Yourself.” It’s as if self- checkout is going to be a rewarding experience, like painting a picture of the Grand Canyon or playing a Beethoven sonata on the piano.

But the only thing I’ve been able to express so far is expletives.

So many times I’ve had the machine simply lock up because I was so foolhardy as to think I could actually purchase a mango, or because I had the audacity to place an item in the wrong spot on the checkout counter.

I’ve often thrown up my hands, put everything back in my basket and hauled it over to the human express line, where I should have gone in the first place.

Of course, with the proliferation of self-checkout machines, the number of express checkouts actually manned by humans is declining. As a result, lines for those are becoming infuriatingly long. (Our survey of readers on 59 grocery chains, published last spring, showed long lines among the main gripes.)

I predict stores soon will eliminate cashiers altogether, and we’ll have row after row of miffed shoppers in constant battle with machines, mechanical versions of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, proclaiming, “No produce for you!”

I like that the human cashier knows exactly what to do if I have a receipt for bottle returns, if the credit card machine can’t read my card, or if I’m eligible for a discount because I brought my own canvas bag, as I like to do.

And what about the jobs lost to those machines? Cashier is one of those good, honest jobs, the kind of job on which so many depend. For teenagers, it’s often the job that introduces them to the responsibilities of joining the working world.

Now, instead of hiring real people, the stores are expecting me to do the work – and for no pay.

Why shouldn’t I get a discount when I check myself out, maybe some cash on the side, some funding for my 401(k) or a bit of health-care coverage?

At the very least, they should change those “Express Yourself” signs above the self-checkout to “Work for us for free.” Then they’d be honest about what’s really going on.

I’m wondering what’s next. Maybe it will be forklift attachments on the shopping carts so we can all head out to the loading dock to get whatever we need off the truck ourselves.

I’m sure some of you are going to reply and accuse me of being a Luddite. You’ll tell me how these machines work perfectly, how they’ve sped up the checkout line and allowed the store to reduce prices by 80 percent or more.

Go ahead and reply. Just let me know where you shop.—Anthony Giorgianni

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