May 8, 2005

Self check-out stands.

Whose idea were they? Why are they becoming an increasingly common sight in major stores? What do they represent?

My father and I were shopping at Home Depot today, and ended up collecting a few items to ring up at the register. Only one 'regular' register was lit up, however, and it was entirely unoccupied. Actually, two female clerks were standing just on the other side, but their backs were turned and they were clearly too busy to serve any customers. After all, an entire section of self-check out stands was waiting nearby, waiting for the customer to take matters into his own hands and serve himself. I wandered over to these brilliant next-generation inventions, and simply marveled for a few moments...

Yes, with this breakthrough new feature, the customer can now be his own cashier! Forget the old-fashioned method of placing your items on a conveyor belt and having an actual human scan your UPC labels for you. You can do it all by yourself, providing you are competent enough to follow the instructions generated by a repetitious computer voice. It's really as simple as waving the bar codes of the items you intend to purchase over a flat glass surface. If you hear a beep, be sure to give yourself a pat on the back. The beep means you were successful. Now, simply repeat for all other items present in your basket, but be sure to place them on the counter to the left so the computer knows when to thank you for your business! Next comes the hard part... selecting your method of payment. If you have trouble deciphering the complicated symbols on the touch screen, you can always ask the clerk at the podium nearby. Certainly, she would not mind taking a break from watching you like a hawk or playing pocket Solitaire. If she's already busy assisting another valued self-check out customer who claims to have had a $50 bill eaten by the machine, though, you had better have bought something soft to sleep on while you're waiting. Alternatively, you could call the manager, who would pop up in the form of a holographic image who would quickly and professionally attempt to resolve your dilemma by encouraging you to press 1 for English, press 2 for Espanol, or press 3 for Francois. If you are able to make a successful payment, however, it's best to scoop up all your items in a hurry--the computer develops an impatient tone if you don't sweep all your purchased goods up off the counter in a matter of seconds. Indeed, there is nothing like the customer doing a cashier's job while the cashier stands by and watches the customer work.

That's what service is becoming like these days. Big outfits like Home Depot and Wal-Mart can certainly profit from placing a fair amount of the workload on the customers rather than hiring more cashiers. If someone can prove to me that self-check out stands were actually created and integrated into these stores for a different reason, one that actually serves to benefit the customers rather than give them the cold shoulder, I would appreciate it. Ordinarily, I prefer doing most things for myself, but when it comes to shopping at a store, I would at least like to experience the common courtesy of having my groceries scanned and bagged for me. As paradigms change, however, this could perhaps become a thing of the past. Perhaps all check out lines will become automated, and human labourers at the register will become a dying breed like men who deliver milk to houses. After all, when fixed capital can do the job more quickly and efficiently, and without requiring a coffee break, why use humans? Someday, "service with a smile" will be little more than a vestigial memory.

This is also evident when requesting a doggy bag or take-home box in a restaurant. I remember when the waitress or waiter would bring the container to the table, place the food the customer requested to be saved in the container, and then seal it up. Now, they do nothing more than give the container to the customer and expect them to do it for themselves... at least where I live. So much for a little extra effort, and so much for a better tip. It is quite saddening that service standards have dropped so substantially over the decades. People in this society generally do not seem to have as much pride in their work as they used to. I suppose multinational corporations can absorb much of the blame for that. Why bother delivering customer satisfaction when you are the king of capitalistic monopolies and could get away with murder?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's supposed to be an IT miracle, or so said a presentation from a previous course.

I believe the self checker will be coming to Canada soon to Walmart's competitor, Zellers. In order for Zellers to be competitive and hopefully gain market share from Walmart, the self checker could be it. You're right, it will reduce labour costs.

However, there are other reasons why they're being integrated. The self checker is marketed to make the lives of customers easier. So many customers are impatient and don't have enough time to endure the minutes wasted in queues. The last thing a company wants is a customer leaving their store dissatisfied. So the self checker caters to those impatient customers.

So there's one reason. You have to admit that there are so many more people that are so impatient. Some places should have some sort of automated self checker. For example, the University of Alberta library has a self check out for books. I like the added feature as it saves time waiting. On the flip side, I think I'd rather wait in a line than put through my own purchases while in a department store.

I don't by any means, support the self checker. They are appropriate in certain circumstances.