Bag It!

Tonight I went to a local, large, spruced-up grocery store that’s part of the a large Canadian grocery store chain called “Dominion”. (Update, 2011:  Dominion is no more; it’s now part of a consolidated chain called “Metro”.)  The store is a short drive away, but it is open 24 hours, which is dead handy when you have an infant in the house. There’s a great selection of products, mostly at reasonable prices, so I’ve felt like it’s a good value to go there. Until now.

Tonight when I had finished shopping, I started walking past the cash registers. A woman standing behind one of them–closed–said “The self-serve checkouts are the only ones open at this time of night, sir.”

I was incredulous. “You’re kidding.”

“No, sir.”

As I walked back to the self-serve checkouts, the woman shouted “Donna–customer!” at another customer service representative (we used to call them clerks), who moved not to help me, but to stand behind a podium that allowed her to oversee four of the self-serve checkouts.

I had used the self-serve checkouts once before. They consist of, essentially, a checkout that’s been turned inside-out. In front of me is a touch screen, a scanner/scale unit, and a couple of slots into which one puts coins, banknotes, or credit cards.

I, the customer, scan the products that have bar codes.  For the ones don’t, I enter the PLU codes (I have to find them on the produce first), weigh the items on the scanner/scale unit, and bag them. There is a rack that holds the bags. Apparently under the rack there’s a second scale that uses the weight of the bags to verify that the items I’ve scanned or weighed myself are the ones that end up in the bag. A computerized voice tells me what to do next at every step–“Produce. Please enter the product number. Please place the item on the scale. Please place the item in the bag.” At the end of the process, the voice tells me to submit payment via cash, credit card, or debit card. All the while, the overseer observes me and the other three checkouts.

For me, these checkouts are quite awkward. I can scan products with bar codes at about the skill level of a first-day trainee, but I don’t know the product lookup numbers (that’s what PLU stands for, by the way) for the asparagus and the spinach and the peaches and the lettuce; an experienced checkout clerk gets to know them and enter them automatically upon seeing the produce. In order to register the sale, I have to touch the screen, choosing the “Produce” button. I’m presented with a grid of about 20 kinds of produce. That screen does list “yams” among the choices, but doesn’t present items that I thought would be common, like “tomatoes” or “cucumbers” or “plums”. If I worked at the place, I’m sure I’d develop some expertise relatively quickly.

But I don’t work at the place, and that’s why it bothered me was that I was expected to handle my own checkout. I’m not a checkout clerk. I don’t say that because I claim superiority over checkout clerks; in fact, the opposite:  I say that because checkout clerks are much, much better at checking out an order than I am. Wait–I suppose that I am a checkout clerk, because the store is insisting that I become one to purchase my groceries. But I’m a lousy checkout clerk. I am a customer, though, and as a customer, I’d like some service.

We probably don’t think about it much, but checkout scanning involves subtle but significant skills and tacit knowledge. It takes practice to get good at scanning items; it helps to have experience, to know where the stickers are, to know the tricks when the equipment or the label is a little balky. Checking out produce involves entering the PLU code, weighing the item, and moving it along; there are experiential, mechanical, and mental skills there too.  A clerk with some experience will speed up the process by seeing the item, recognizing it, recalling the item’s PLU number from memory, entering the number on the register with one hand while weighing the item and moving it along with the other. The self-serve checkout doesn’t afford a good way to do the mechanical stuff efficiently or ergonomically. Naturally, I don’t know the PLUs, so I’ll waste a lot of time inspecting the produce to find it.

I clumsily and haltingly scanned and weighed my items. It didn’t go particularly smoothly, despite the help being inflicted on me by the machine. Occasionally I would make a mistake, and a suggested remedy came from the computerized voice. I wasn’t fast enough for the human overseer, who chose to shout advice to me from her podium just in time for her advice to conflict with the computerized voice. And I resented doing all this, which further dulled my capabilities; people aren’t good at jobs they hate. The overseer was essentially managing me, and because she was barking suggestions at me from a distance, she wasn’t managing me well. The machine’s advice was repetitive and simple-minded, as you’d expect from a machine.

I needed four bags to contain my groceries, one more than the three bags supported by the rack and the second scale. The overseer had to come and issue an override so that I could take a full bag off the rack and put an empty one on. At the end of the process, I decided to pay cash for the groceries. The machine happily swallowed a fifty and a twenty, but rejected my five-dollar bill; I had to feed it back to the machine twice. Finally sated, the machine spat a couple of dollars of change back into the change tray.

Between the self-serve checkout, the overseer and the computer voice, the sensation I had was of being a lousy clerk, being hassled by two lousy managers. One of my managers was an expert at the job that I was attempting, and the other was a machine. There’s a healthy organizational relationship, don’t you agree?

This is backwards from the way it’s been all along, with expert, practiced people providing real service for customers. In the time it took me to move my order through the checkout, a capable and skilled clerk could have handled five customers.

After I was done (and angry) I told the overseer that I wouldn’t be back to the store. We had a brief conversation about the self-serve checkouts. “People either love them or hate them,” she said. “Mark me down under ‘hate them’, I said–but if you know that SOME people hate them, why don’t you give those people a choice and open a staffed register or two?” “During the day we do, sir, but after one o’clock, it’s a security thing. We don’t want there to be access to the till for security.”

Someone, somewhere evidently hoped that using the word “security” would end any thought or discussion about the subject. However, the argument doesn’t make sense; if there’s a worry about the open till, someone else could check out the groceries and I could still deposit money directly into the machine. I could even pass it to the clerk, who could just as easily and just as securely put it into the machine. Next bogus argument, please.

This is a really good example of a company trying to fob off service onto the customer. Grocery stores used to provide delivery, but withdrew it; stores used to provide staff to bag the groceries, but that service got withdrawn too. Now Dominion is making me feel like a clerk–and an inept and unpaid one at that–and promoting the person who should be my clerk into my manager.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling disgust about this, but somehow I expect to see more of it.

2 replies to “Bag It!”

  1. Yes i to work at a rather large New Zealand supermarket, some of our progressive interprise stores are those self serve thingys. we were considering them at My supermarket (Countdown) but after a short brief discussion decided that it would cram the supermarket full of customers who didn’t have a clue on how to handle a checkout, As i am a checkout operator i can remember my 1st day training its not that easy to do, but after a good 8 or so hours of working on the checkout the confidence shot up and was zipping through the customers by the minute. and yes i agree that your situation was rather poorly delt with by the Supermarket manager at the time.


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