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September 16, 2002

The Big Ugly Cashier I Met Needs Help

I wonder how long it will take George Bush Sr. to notice. I recall that during the elder Bush's presidency he was passing through a supermarket for one reason or another, and commented on the laser UPC scanners at the checkout. Only after marveling at them and the high technology they represented did someone clue him into the fact that they'd been the status quo in supermarket checkouts for a number of years. In other words, Bush Sr. needed to get out more.

Now that his presidency (read my kinder, gentler lips) is but a memory, maybe he'll have time to meet the big, ugly cashier that I met only a few short weeks ago. No, I'm not talking about a person, I'm talking about the self-checkouts that recently populated my local grocery store about a month back.

In case you're in the middle of absolutely nowhere or just don't bother to go outside anymore, I'll describe what I'm talking about. Normally you would line up and place all your carefully selected grocery items on the conveyor belt, where they would march towards the cashier. He or she would then scan the items that had a UPC code, code in and weigh those that didn't, call for a price check if something was truly amiss, and hand you your receipt. There is now an option for people who would rather skip the social pleasantries of chatting with the cashier or just plain respond to the draw of new technology. That option is the self-checkout machines now starting to populate grocery stores everywhere.

The machine itself is pretty non-descript; it's grey, it's big, and the only important features on it are the LCD touchscreen, the combination UPC scanner and scale, a slot to accept cash, and a debit/credit card reader. My local grocer installed two different varieties of these machines; four machines for smaller amounts of groceries (five bags' worth), and two machines with six plastic bag dispensers on a turntable and a platform beside it for full bags, in order to process much bigger purchases.

Thus far I've used the machines a few times. I must say, for the right situation it's great to have these machines available. What I have found, however, is that these machines are still far from perfect, and there are definitely situations in which it would be well worth your time to give them a miss and strike up a conversation with one of the flesh-and-bone cashiers.

First, see how much you purchase during an average trip to the grocery store. If you're like me and have a couple of other mouths to feed, you'll easily spend over $100 in a week. This represents a fair amount of groceries, and the threshold of the point at which you have to decide how much of a hurry you are really in. Does a slow but steady process infuriate you, or are you simply killing time anyways? This is important because going through a self-checkout with a big load of groceries is not - I repeat, not - a speedy task.

The first time I went through with my family I erroneously chose one of the machines that did not have the turntable. What I did have was 5 plastic bag dispensers with which to bag all my groceries. Just under halfway through, it was painfully obvious that I would not get away with only 5 bags for everything I wanted to purchase. So what? No big deal, just take your groceries away and get 5 more bags, right? No.

These machines operate on the principle of weight. Every item in the store has been weighed, save for the produce that is weighed as you check out. So to purchase a can of soup, I scan the UPC on the can, and place it in one of the plastic bags. The bags are on a large scale, and the machine knows what that can of soup should weigh. To avoid theft, after I scan in the can of soup I have to immediately put it into a bag so it can be weighed. If the weight matches what is expected, I can scan the next item and repeat the process. If something doesn't match, the machine automatically pages a human cashier to see what the problem is.

Back to my 5 bags. I've now filled the 5 bags, and try to remove them. Suddenly the machine is telling me to put everything back, as it wants to make sure that our transaction is equitable. The problem is that I really need to clear the decks so I can continue scanning the rest of my purchase. In this instance, the cashier comes over and clears whatever error is being generated, and I'm able to remove my full bags and start again with 5 empty ones. It's only at this point that she mentions the two units with a 6 bag capacity, a turntable, and a side table that is also weighed, to be used for large purchases like mine. Mental note for next time: use the other machine.

One week later, we're back, and we remember to go to the 6 bag machine with the turntable and side table. Once a few bags are full I can remove them from the turntable and place them on the side table without trouble. The side table isn't huge, and would probably overflow with any purchase significantly larger than my own, but that's not my problem right now. What I discover this time, now that my mind isn't stuck on "how do I get more bags?" is that this entire process is just plain slow.

When I first heard of these machines, and saw them being installed, I wondered how they would get around the obvious potential for theft. The use of weighing turned out to be their method, but it also turns out to be the bottleneck of the whole operation. Let's go back to the can of soup I purchased above. I don't buy just one can of soup at a time, as we like to have some options to make one of the many casseroles that are easy to whip up in 10 minutes with soup, vegetables, meat, and pasta. I've got two hands, so I start grabbing the soup cans from the cart, intent on scanning and then bagging them two at a time. Right after the first can, I run into the problem. The machine is now waiting for me to place the first can of soup in a bag before it will even let me scan anything else. I quickly realize there's little point in trying to be quick, and am left to the plodding task of getting one item, scanning and bagging it, and then grabbing another item. If you've only got one arm, rest assured this process will be fine for you.

It would be fairly simple (or so I will believe before proven otherwise) that it would be an easy task to simply store the total weight tally as you scan and allow items to be scanned whether something's been placed in a bag or not. I could then easily scan my two cans of soup, bag them, and get on with it without having to wait for the machine to register the fact that I've bagged my first can and am waiting to scan the next. This would allow for a small potential for theft, but any thief would have to know the exact weight of what they were going to steal, and find something (or a combination of somethings) much cheaper that weighted exactly the same to scan in its place. Too much thinking involved.

Even if I could scan at will, I'd have some issues with the state-of-the-art for these machines. While weighing your purchase keeps the store safe from theft and you safe from errors on your part (I had my hand on the scale at one point) it really is the Achilles' heel of the process. During our last self-checkout I bought one of those huge boxes of cereal. I was merrily scanning and bagging along when I came to this particular box. It has a UPC so I figured it would be a simple matter, relative to fresh produce where I have to either flip through pictorial menus to find what I want or punch in the produce code, if it's on what I'm buying. I scanned the box and placed it on the turntable, and attempted to scan the next item. The machine balked, however, and went into "wait for the cashier" mode, which pretty much locks me out of doing anything except waiting for help.

The help system is actually pretty neat. One or two cashiers are assigned to supervise these machines, and each person is armed with a wireless PDA. If a machine has a problem, the cashier is instantly paged, and the problem is displayed on their screen. They can override the error, or try to figure out what's been messed up. Of course, being in the introductory stages of the rollout of these machines, their PDA was constantly tweedling with problems.

In fairly short order the cashier came over to see what the problem was with my box of Cheerios. After a few seconds of staring at her PDA she didn't understand what the problem was. Her best guess, after trying a few things, was that when this particular box of Cheerios was filled, it was filled on the high side of the tolerance the machine weighs to. In layman's terms, I got a few more Cheerios in my box than normal, enough such that the machine thought I had placed something in excess of the box of Cheerios into the bag. It thought I was trying to pull a fast one, thanks to the generous nature of the bag-filling machine at the Cheerios plant in some distant city. Although it was an interesting source of error, I wasn't exactly amused at this teething problem.

There is one further issue I have with these machines. About a year back our grocer introduced grocery bins - reusable plastic bins that can be used in place of paper or plastic bags. We purchased three, which have served us well, and we enjoy using them. They certainly make unloading our vehicle easier when we get home. Sadly, it is not immediately obvious if these machines have the capacity to use these boxes. I have not asked yet, but I suppose I could place the bins on the side table before I started, hoping that their weight would be zeroed out in starting the checkout process. I can only speculate.

All told, I'm quite impressed. When the store is moderately busy and you simply need a few items, these self-checkouts are exactly what are needed. They're fast enough, convenient, and fairly easy to use. They don't pose any danger to the flesh-and-bone variety of cashiers, however, as they simply can't handle big loads easily, let alone quickly. Until they speed up, they will remain the minority among checkouts.

Maybe it's for the best. As the proud parent of a very outgoing child, I'd miss watching her make the cashier smile as she pushes at the debit machine buttons and waves bye-bye. It's a nice dose of humanity in an ever faster-paced grocery world.


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