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Remove All Items from the Belt

What's the price of going peopleless? How has technology cramped or enhanced your style in everyday activities? We examine one case.

Wow, is  automation really transforming our world?  No, but
it seems to be taking over a lot of jobs formerly held  by humans. 
Because  machines do the same work faster, better and cheaper, right?   Well, not exactly. 

Some colleagues and I tested  the self check-out machines at more than a dozen CVS’s , Waldbaums and Stop & Shops on Eastern Long Island and found using the machine was as much as 1 ½ times MORE time consuming than having a live cashier do the work.  And,  if part of our person inadvertently made
contact with the machine, we got wrist-slapped with ‘remove all items’, ‘put
all items back’, or ‘help is required’as a metastasizing line of  annoyed customers waited behind us.  Pretty embarrassing.  We thought airport check-ins were
frustrating.  Maybe Stop & Shop should partner with the TSA.

Also,  self check-out was supposed to offer the convenience of accepting all forms of payment, including CASH.  Yet,  we  saw at least one out of three kiosks at every store we visited that did not accept cash, was closed, or was  otherwise not available during a time when there were also long lines at every register as well as the  self-check kiosks.

Yep, self check-outs are transforming the supermarket experience, and providing just the recipe for spending a lot less , especially on those prepared foods with the teeny tiny  bar codes that stump the scanner.  I’d get my groceries a lot faster and cheaper at a Horn and Hardart*.


In my most recent self check-out experience, I encountered more anomalies than usual, as the scanner was repeatedly unable to scan items that normally scanned without incident. I patiently keyed in those items after it became apparent that help was not on the way.  When I finished paying, a young employee did finally arrive to retrieve my missing receipt before the scanner ate it.

Self check-out seems like a good idea, but the technology has a long way to go before it offers the equivalent quality, efficiency and convenience of express  or any check-out staffed by a real person.  Nevertheless, we ran across some self
check-out  fans who say human error is to blame.


Jessica B writes:

“i use the self check out because it is faster than going
through the line with some cashiers. what annoys me is someone with produce
that is sitting looking at everything on the list not seeing that you can
search according to the first letter. bagel start with a b.”

My response: 

Gee, thanks for the tip, Jessica.  And by the way, I admire e.e. cummings, too.  Most of us Neanderthals actually know how to search by first letter-- ‘a’ as in
apple, for example;  but when doing so,  I find I still have to look through all the
apples (which are mixed in with every other kind of produce) because what I need
is  actually ‘empire’ apples;  and searching by ‘e’ as in empire produces  no results.  The alternative would be keying in the PLU code, but alas, there is
often  no PLU code on the produce item I am trying to scan.   To be fair, not all
self-check kiosks are alike, and perhaps I just haven’t had the opportunity to
use one in which the ‘search’ feature works as designed. 

Brevejunkie writes:

"I’ve noticed mainly old people using the self checkout, and
they have NO clue what they’re doing, and they’re generally painfully slow.
Most of the time, after encountering so many problems, they end up having the
supervising cashier just ring their entire order up for them, THEN the cashier
has to help them pay (they dno’t know how to use a debit card, can’t find the slot
to put the cash, etc.) These people usually have fairly large orders, too.
Don’t get me wrong–I have nothing against elderly people–I’ll be one myself one
day and I’m sure I’ll have younger people complaining about how slow I am. :) I
just wish they’d use the regular, full-service lanes instead of trying to
“learn something new.”


My response:

Funny-- the customers ahead of me in self check-outs have been mostly young Mom types with carts stuffed with economy size items ranging from diapers to diet drinks.  They are frequently accompanied by children who want to “help”.  I’m glad you have nothing against elderly people, BreveJunkie, and hope you make it to the age when arthritis, poor eyesight, difficulty walking and other joys of aging  get in the way of being super productive at self check-outs.  And just to clarify, self check-out is not an EXPRESS lane for people with 10 items or less, so maybe YOU should go to a full service express lane if someone in the self check-out lane is taking too long.  As for learning something new,  you could inspire all of us by learning how to use spell check on your mobile device.


Someday, I will grow fingers for the digital age.  And, if our consumer culture continues to go peopleless, maybe, we’ll all get to wear
bar codes. Hope they’ll  come in different colors,  at least.



*  Horn and Hardart was a food service company famous for the Automat, a self-service diner equipped with wall-to-wall vending machines stocked with fresh (yes, really),prepared foods.  I was a devoted patron of the Horn and Hardart  on E 42nd Street, which sadly closed in 1991.  The Automat actually had a lot of charm and ambience (unlike most supermarkets or fast food restaurants today); and it offered a great selection of foods that were tasty, easy to purchase, and reasonably priced.

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