31 Jan Why I Hate Self-Service Check-out

Here are the reasons I hate the self-service check-out counters we find increasingly in large supermarkets and big box stores:

1) They’re taking jobs away from workers. I don’t like the idea that my local Safeway is keeping its prices low (relatively) by cutting their work staff.

2) They’re making me work. I pay retail prices for the sake of convenience. Self-service check-out aisles are far from convenient. I refuse to weigh my own produce and look up the goddamn veggie category code UNLESS the store is going to give me a discount for doing that work. To make matters worse, these machines are not universal from store to store (so I have to learn each machine at each store?), they often get messed up or confused (they won’t scan an item or double scan an item, etc.), and they are blindingly rigid.

Example: Out of desperation, I once used a self-self check-out at the grocery store. After scanning each item, the machine demanded that I put that item down on the counter. I wanted to put the item directly into my bag. But, no, the machine wanted it on the counter. If I didn’t put the item down on the counter after scanning, then I would have to press the “bypass bagging” option on the screen after every scan. I didn’t know about the “bypass bagging” option on the screen. I kept trying to scan the next item, but nothing would happen. Growing hot with anger and frustration, I started muttering to myself and was about to curse the machine and walk away when a human being — a professional checker — came to my assistance and showed me my error. You have noticed that there is always one real-live checker stationed at these self-service aisles?

In short, the supposed “convenience” of self-service is a lie and an insult to the consumer’s intelligence.

3) As the previous example illustrates, these machines make me feel trapped, even belittled — the way I feel when I fall into a labyrinth of pre-recorded voice mail options every time I try to reach my credit card company to correct a mistake: whenever that hapapens, I just want to scream, Give me a frigging person I can talk to and we’ll get business done promptly!

4) In other words, these machines undermine the humanity of commerce. Yes, that’s an old-fashioned notion but consider: I’ve come to know most of the check-out staff at my neighborhood supermarket — and I have a couple of favorites I really enjoy seeing. Doing my business with a machine instead, which makes me anxious because I can’t trust the thing will get it right, is an isolating and, at worst, demoralizing act. We go to stores for help and assistance, hence the convetional greeting of commerce: “may I help you?” At bottom, we want to be taken care of. That’s part of the deal we’re paying for. “Service” isn’t truly service if you’re doing it yourself.

I know, these are hard times and, increasingly, we’ve had to serve ourselves in so many ways, starting with pumping our own gas way back in the 1970s. Very likely checkers at retail stores will go the way of elevator operators. No doubt many people (in the 1950s) were put out by the prospect of losing the ever-reliable elevator operator to the automated self-serve elevator that all of us know today. Should I add that, without the operator, the automated elevator became something of a menace, the subject of more than a few horror stories and horror movies?

Let me end with a confession. Just yesterday I was in such a rush that I used a self-service check-out in a store (Home Depot) where I had vowed never to use one. I did so because I had only one item whose scan bar was clearly visible and I had a gift card to pay for it: two swipes at the machine and — no small talk, no plastic bag — I was out of there in a flash, feeling terribly conflicted and not a little guilty.