Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is the Self-Checkout Lane Really Faster?

I have to admit I was a little intimidated when grocery stores first came out with the self checkout lanes. Actually, I think a lot of people must have been intimidated by them because they didn’t seem to be very busy back then. I’d stand in the “express” lane—in quotes because of the inevitable person who ignores the 15 item limit—and look longingly at the empty self checkout lane and think about how much quicker I could be out of the store if only I could use that lane.

Eventually I was with my wife at the grocery store and she headed to the self-checkout. “It’s really easy,” she said, and lo and behold it did seem easy enough to give it a go myself. The next time I was at the store I tried it and now I use it almost exclusively. I’ve gotten pretty proficient with it, too, I have to say.

But now I’m beginning to wonder, is it really faster to use the self-checkout? For one thing, many shoppers have also figured out that it’s easy to use. That’s freed up a a lot of time for store employees to look at National Enquirer and People magazine, but it’s created long lines at the self-checkout.

It’s not a flawless system by any means, which is one of the reasons for the lines getting longer. You see, the most intimidating thing about using the self-checkout is dealing with “The Voice.” The Voice can be very hard to please. She’s got a certain way of doing things and she doesn’t like it when you don’t do things her way. In fact, if you don’t do it her way she’ll just stop working. And there are a lot of things she doesn’t like. If you get something just slightly in the wrong place she says, in a voice you wish was just a little quieter, “PLEASE REMOVE THE LAST ITEM FROM THE BAGGING AREA.” Sometimes it’s not always clear what you did that ticked her off, but nonetheless, she’s intimidating enough to make you scramble to figure out what’s upsetting her. Sometimes it’s something like not putting the milk in a bag that upsets her, and if you can’t figure it out fast enough she just shuts down and says, “an attendant has been notified.” Except the attendant is over at the customer service desk trying to line up a date with a coworker. Or reading People magazine.

But even if you didn’t have to contend with those issues, you’d still be facing the biggest challenge of all when it comes to self-checkout. I’ve “patiently” (in quotes because the APA rules state that anytime patient or one of its derivatives is used in a sentence along with my name it must be in quotes) waited in the self-checkout line and observed the following: one, friends and family members gathered around the checkout carrying on a leisurely conversation while just as leisurely checking out their groceries. I have to say women are the big offenders on this one. If you see guys gathered around one they’re just trying to figure out how to use the danged thing. Second, I’ve watched parents whose toddlers wanted to help check out the groceries, so you stand there while Billy selects the item he wants to scan, which happens to be the item Sally is holding, which, of course, starts a fight. Eventually, a truce is agreed to and Billy scans his item. Then it’s Sally’s turn, except she wants to check out the item that Billy hurriedly picked up . . . which, OF COURSE, starts another fight. And then you’ve got your shoppers who really should just go through an attended line but who insist on using the self-checkout, except they just can’t ever get the hang of it, so you stand there and wait while the attendant walks over from the customer service desk to check out their groceries.

Yeah, I know, I know. I’m really turning into a crotchety old man. Still, I think I’ve listed enough legitmate issues to force a rethinking of the whole notion of self-checkout. Don’t you think?