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The Secret of Self-Checkout

Beware of Bossy Machines and Shrewd Cashiers

Shopping at Safeway during rush hour can be as stressful as trying to program a DVR player.  After selecting my grocery items, I stand in a lane, five customers deep, filled with overloaded carts moving at a pace slower than a chess game.  I notice a few brave souls with small orders using self-checkout.

For those whose haven’t been paying attention, the self-checkout is an automated register located near aisle one.  The customer scans, bags and pays for the purchases without the help of a cashier.  Sounds easy enough but don’t let that fool you.  Self-checkout machines can be bossy.

I eye the machine with the trepidation of a kid receiving a flu vaccine. “Don’t do it.  Remember the last time,” says that little voice inside my head.  I had selected Spanish instead of English and ended up in a system loop, “Llame al attendant.”  I abandoned the items on the scanner and left the store.     

But today I have lots of motivation, faster and shorter lines.  I refuse to be intimidated again.

I weave through other shoppers to reach self-checkout.  One cashier provides assistance for six machines.  With shrewd, beady eyes and painted on pants, she acts like a periscope on a submarine, constantly scanning and waiting for the slightest customer infraction. 

            I step up to the self-checkout machine.  A computer-animated voice demands me to follow the directions on the screen.  First, I select English not Spanish.  Next, the annoying voice says, “Scan your item.  Place in shopping bag.”  This goes smoothly until I try to scan a bag of carrots, no bar code.

            Oh God, now what? 

The attendant senses my confusion and saunters over.  “Have a problem?” she asks.

“Yeah, how do I scan vegetables?”

Mocking me with its simplicity, she places the carrots on the scale, enters her secret pin number, pushes four buttons, smirks and walks away. 

It is more difficult to repeat the process without her by my side.  Placing apples on the scale, I push the “No Barcode” icon and then “A” on the display screen for apples.  Forty separate icons appear.  Mackintosh, Granny Smith, McIntosh, Red Delicious, the list drones on.  Since the tiny label fell off the apple, I panic and push any button.  My face turns beet red and lips quiver.

Okay, just relax. 

            My items overflow the bagging area and I sling them into the cart.  The register shuts down with an error message, “See attendant.” 

The computer system alerts the cashier, she marches over, fixes the machine and reminds me, “You must leave the bags in the bagging area until you are finished or the machine thinks you are stealing.”

If I knew so much, I’d be working here!

By this point, crowds pile up behind me as angry as the fans at an Oakland Raiders game.  Hyperventilating, I try my last item, a birthday card.  I run it over the scanner and slide it into the bagging area. 

The creepy computer voice reminds me, “Place item in bagging area.”

What the hell?

I catch the attention of the attendant for the final time.  She drags herself over, letting me know with the shake of her head that I am beyond help.

“The card is too light-weight.  The machine doesn’t know if you put it in the bagging area.”

She enters her secret pin number, pushes a button and walks away.

Finalizing my purchases, I scan my club card, enter the Visa, take the receipt, grab the last bag and leave the store in humiliation.  Didn’t even attempt to use a coupon. 

You’ve been warned.

Lani Longshore June 29, 2012 at 04:58 PM
I avoid all versions of self-service as much as possible (yes, I write science fiction but that doesn't mean I like machines). I called AAA for trip advice and after answering all of my questions the guy said I could also use the website. I told him that if I went to the website first he might be out of a job and I couldn't have that on my conscience.
Jan June 29, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Perfectly described! There must be many more who agree with this frustration- Costco in Luvermore took their self check out lines out!!
uhhhhyeahNO June 29, 2012 at 08:42 PM
It is actually easy, slow down and i am sure you could do it! I love the safeway Checkers. Never had any problems!
Camille Thompson June 29, 2012 at 09:28 PM
Hilarious! Another home run! Yes, I've encountered the "too light to recognize" issue. Thanks for giving me my laugh for the day! :)
Michael M June 30, 2012 at 12:55 AM
Really, you are not able to work your way through a self-checkout at the grocery store? Is that what you want people to know about you? To not like it is your choice. To decide it is too much of a hassle for you, fine. But to admit you cannot work it? On top of that you take a pot shot at someone helping you, really? You take the time to have contempt for the people charged with helping you, is that really what you experienced? Maybe it is you! I have NEVER (and those that know me know I am not the most easy to please) experienced bad service at self-service checkout. Not even at self-checkout at Home Depot and they have the worst customer service on their floor that anyone can experience (it is a ghost town out there, like the commercial).
Stacey Gustafson June 30, 2012 at 01:51 AM
Reread the article. The cashier is not the problem. It's a pain to constantly need help from the cashier due to smeared bar codes, missing labels, improper pricing. I have resolved my issues with the self-checkout machine by using a full service cashier. It keeps jobs for workers. And relax, this is a humor column!
Kari Hulac (Editor) June 30, 2012 at 03:07 PM
It's hit and miss, I've found. Works best with just a few items that don't require weighing & codes. But sometimes even when you do everything just right, the machine goes nuts. Says you took something off the bagging platform when you didn't. Or that "unknown item in bagging area" message. And I've had many checkers act like it was something I did! And forget buying alcohol, as now the checker has to scan your i.d.
Eric July 02, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Self service. Do the stores give you a discount for checking your own items and packing your own items, because what you are doing is eliminating labor for them? No. Are self checkouts capable of figuring out a problem with missed priced items or damaged goods in a reasonable amount of time? No. So self checkouts in anyway make your food less expensive or give you better service? No. Do self checkouts eliminate a livable wage job? Yes. Will I ever use a self checkout. No!
JMKC July 02, 2012 at 12:05 AM
I like to use the machines if I'm not in a hurry and I expect to need help with items that are too light, smeared bar codes, etc. So I can identify with your experience. And I also feel a little guilty that by using them, I might be putting some of the check out employees' jobs at risk. Thanks for you take on it. I always enjoy your humor.
karen griego July 02, 2012 at 01:42 AM
I worked at Fresh & Easy and all the registers were self check out. We had four registers without the belt for people with only a few items. You wouldn't believe the people that would go there with a cart load of items and then get mad at us when things didn't go well. Everything is weighed so if you put it on the scale don't lift it back up .Don't let your young children scan the items and then yell when something was scanned twice. Of course we are gonna come to check for ID on alcohol , it's the law. I would always ask if the person wanted help scanning or bagging. The worst thing I saw was when a person used their EBT card and when it didn't have money on it they took their food and walked out without paying! So I don't work there anymore because the sales were slow. I guess everyone wants to be waited on . It sounds nice like the days when someone pumped our gas and washed our windows, I feel we better get used to doing everything ourselves .
jake3_14 July 04, 2012 at 12:16 AM
That wasn't due to customer complaints or lack of use. The machinery kept breaking down, slowing the checkout speed. Costco's committed to good customer service, so out the self-checkout lines went.
jake3_14 July 04, 2012 at 12:20 AM
You also have to be canny if you bring your own grocery bags. You can't set them down before scanning items, because the giant scale gives an error. You can't set them down during scanning, because their added weight makes the machine give an error. No, you have to hold the bag in your hands and transfer groceries directly to the bag. So much for saving the environment!
Troy Philis July 07, 2012 at 04:22 PM
The rude Safeway checker didn't ring true to me. I think leaving out the business name would have made it more a humorous slice of life and less a criticiscm of a specific business and its employees. I shop at Safeway and have talked to the checkers about self-checkout, and they don't like it either.

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