I have always had mixed feelings about self checkout lines. I first saw them in supermarkets as a sort of super-express-lane. Or more specifically, a quintuplet of super-express-lanes because they usually cram four of them together. At the time, they were only in supermarkets. I was in my mid 20s and thought they were great! …mostly. My typical workday was pretty late and the supermarket was open 24-hours so it was easy to grab a few things for dinner and race through checkout. During the day, it was a little bit annoying because you’d get somebody with a heaping cart full of a week’s worth of groceries trying to use them (ignoring the 15-items-or-fewer signs, with no reprimand by the one overworked employee operating all four stations) or you’d have Grandma in front of you, prodding at the touch screen with an unsure finger and spending entirely too long in trying to find the barcodes on her items, confused by the newfangled computer checkout. Overall, though, for me at that time in my life, it was new and novel and useful.
These days, I find them annoying at best and frustrating at worst. First and foremost, the novelty has worn off and the quirks in the system have become much more visible. For every item you scan, the pressure-sensitive table holding the plastic bags needs a bit more weight. This is true whether it’s a lightweight box of band-aids that’s too small to register weight or a rake that’s too big to put on the table. Virtually every operation seems like it needs an override by the overworked employee who’s minding all four stations. Add to this the moral and philosophical issues dangling over the situation. The small amount of time savings going through self-checkout versus an express lane is a huge cost-savings for the supermarket. To install self-checkout, they’ve removed a few lanes (presumably some of the express lanes), decreasing their cashier staff by a few, and transition the gruntwork from the checkers on to you! The whole thing smells a little too much of corporate greed to me. To top it all off, you usually get zero human interaction during self-checkout. At best you get a nod and a “hey” from the overseer employee. That person rarely even talks to you when doing those aforementioned override operations.
Given all of this, I gravitate away from the self checkout lanes these days. Last night, on my way home from work, I stopped by a big-box hardware store that uses a few of these lanes. I have always avoided them in the past because they offered conventional checkout options, but last night the only open lanes were self-checkout! And the majority of stuff in my cart was large-ish. As I pondered how to best get the barcode end of the edger and stand-up weed puller to the scanner glass without damage to the items or machine, the overseer lady came along with a wireless barcode reader. Because she was rushed (by other customers with other issues), she proceeded to scan stuff directly in the cart without going through that whole routine of removing it from the cart, scanning it, then bagging or tagging it. I carefully watched as she proceeded to scan items. Of course, given this particular methodology, human error came into play. She didn’t double-scan anything, but did miss a few things.
As is customary in self-checkout lanes, nothing more than a few grunt-like words were said to me and I never spoke a single word throughout the whole transaction. Minimal-to-no communication feels like the social contract of this particular kind of transaction choreography. I keep telling myself that I’m not a thief-via-inaction and I’m starting to believe it.