My local supermarket recently installed the new self checkout stations and as I stood in line waiting for a real human being to process my purchase the old fashioned way I had the time to reflect on what these new wonders of technology represent. I can appreciate that for many consumers these automated checkouts will have a genuine appeal as they won’t have to waste their time standing in line with their milk and bread waiting for the cashier (remember them) to total up their bill. On the other hand, the trend towards automation in the retail business seems to dehumanize the commercial process and puts one more layer of distance between the multinational mega-corporations that own these grocery chains and the people that shop in their stores.
Retail Transactions in the 21st Century
Unless you live in a remote part of the earth where everything isn’t bar coded, or under a rock (or both), then you will be familiar with the process. When you come to pay for your purchases you are confronted by a bank of screens with all of the scales, bags and barcode readers are lined up at the front end of the store with a single attendant overseeing their operation. This person is there to offer assistance to customers that have difficulties with operating the technology and to make sure that every potato gets weighed. Obviously, if your customers are sufficiently trained in operating the machines then they will require less help and they should be able to process themselves more efficiently. This, in turn, reduces the need for the supermarket to employ checkout staff as now the customers themselves have made the job redundant.
In my mind, this raises two separate, yet equally important issues. Most obviously this is a move by the plutocrats that largely control the food chain in Western civilization in the modern day to reduce their costs by employing fewer people. It really was a stroke of genius to think of transferring the responsibility for totting up the bill to the guy who is also forking out the cash. Of course this stratagem requires that the consumer is properly trained in using the machines and indoctrinated with the philosophy that makes using them more appealing that dealing with another person face to face while you pay for your goods. While this may appeal when you are just dashing in to top up on condoms, vodka and Kool Aid, do you really want to be trained by a corporation in the correct operation of their latest labor saving technology?
The Consumer in Its Natural Habitat
While passing through the checkout to pay for my potatoes and carrots (and resisting the temptation to throw a Mars Bar and a Red Bull in my shopping basket in the checkout line) I had the chance to observe the other customers’ reaction to the new machines in their familiar supermarket. Older people walk right past them like they aren’t there and are totally disinterested in even finding out what they are for (which I found interesting- I wonder how many of them went home and posted to Facebook that the local Woolworths had new machines?). Customers that are obviously familiar with them roll straight through the checkout like there’s nobody else in the place and disappear without a whisper.
The most interesting customers to watch are the ones that see the long line at the express lane (which is still the same as it was before the new machines) and look with trepidation at their other speedy alternative. Armed with their all purpose credit/debit card they launch into the uncertainty of self service. The questions that arise are painted on their faces as their inner voice protests at its natural disinclination for learning how to operate a new digital device. The first inhibition to arise is driven by their inexperience- Will I look like an idiot in front of the whole world? (at least those members of the global population that are present). Will I charge myself too much for my broccoli? Will I look like I have put those M&Ms in the bag without paying for them? (smile at official supervisor of self checkout area reassuringly). Will I feel as satisfied after my purchase?
Personally, I have avoided these new machines simply because I am too lazy to be bothered with checking out my own groceries. The whole idea of having to weigh turnips and onions is too much of a hassle to go through just to be a few minutes quicker through the checkout. I also like the cashiers at my local purveyor of generic brands- I have been going to the same supermarket just about every day for years and it is a nice diversion from a busy day to exchange meaningless pleasantries while I exchange my hard earned cash for my dinner. Judging by the length of the line at the last attended cash register while the new machines stand unused, their touch screens blinking aimlessly while they await their next self service oriented customer, I am not alone.
Obviously there hasn’t been the level of acceptance among the customers that has been required to justify the automation of the sales process. The managers who beamed as the efficient new machines were installed by ghostlike technicians who whisked them in in the dead of night and spent a couple of days unobtrusively calibrating them for maximum profits. These beaming smiles have turned to frustrated frowns as they watched customers line up for the human touch, looking across their once familiar supermarket at the new intruders with eyes like a horse that’s seen a snake. It seemed as if the integration of the new technology into the sales funnel and the necessary indoctrination of the client base were going to be more difficult than it first appeared that they would be.
My Close Encounter with the New Technology
The stalemate at the cash register between customer and machine obviously had to be moved on and as I stood in line with my chicken drumsticks and tins of expensive cat food pondering whether my personal economy could still support my tobacco habit, I was approached by one of the managers who kindly offered to put my purchases through the new fangled cash register ma-bobs for me. As I have been a regular customer for a number of years the management of the local food barn recognize me at least well enough to know what brand of cigarettes I smoke and so this led me to believe that I was a targeted customer for a personal introduction to the pleasures, and convenience, of using their 21st Century innovation on the age old practice of retail.
As she led me to the automated area of the checkout process the manager looked at me and I could see that she understood at a glance that I had absolutely no intention of paying any attention to the process at all. I like to believe that the frown that this evoked on her very serious face was intended for her overlords rather than myself (she has, up to this point, always been lovely to deal with). When we arrived at the shining new machines the area was populated only by ourselves and a couple of truant schoolboys that were paying for Chup-a-Chups while walking out with their pockets filled with Skittles.
The young manager looked at them and sighed before smiling patiently at me and indicating the place where I was to put my basket full of goods for processing by the new system. As I complied I stepped back a prepared to be amazed. I sensed that she wanted me to be a more active participant in the process and perhaps I could even say something like; “Wow! I had no idea that it was so simple. I will use this every time that I visit your emporium henceforth. This will make my life so much better.”
Unfortunately, none of that happened. Instead, I stood grinning like an idiot as she scanned my generic packet of raw sugar and weighed the beans that I had selected for my dinner. The whole demonstration broke down completely when she mistakenly selected Navel Oranges while weighing my Imperial mandarin and she had to go through a complicated process to remove it from the transaction. Still and all, she took this reversal well and resigned herself to the possibility that I would never learn how to checkout my own celery and quick cooking oats and completed the transaction with good grace.
After paying with my digi-dollars in the usual fashion, complete with being asked if I possess a loyalty card and whether my cash reserves needed a top up, I felt a bit guilty for having so easily thwarted the gambit. After all, she was just another foot soldier slogging it out in the trenches at the behest of her Fearless Leaders. Still, all that I could manage was a smile and a heartfelt thanks which seemed small consolation for the long day of similar exchanges that she undoubtedly saw in her own future.
The Cyber Voice of Public Opinion
The encounter made me wonder about what the world really thought of the automation of the purchasing process in this way. Obviously, the supermarket manager demographic was going to rate it pretty bloody highly, but the facts are that this is a very tiny subset of society. What I wondered was how was the new technology going down with the man on the street and the busy soccer mum? Of course I went to the blogosphere where, if there is an opinion (or more) to be had on any subject, it is certain to have been voiced.
The first thing that I noticed was how good a job the cash register companies did of blitzing the interwebz with their messages of positive reinforcement. Apparently you can buy popularity on the internet if you have the bucks- who’d-a-thunk it? The SERPs are loaded with industry content that extols the virtues of the automatic payment system and even the images SERPs aren’t loaded up with the usual derogatory memes that are a standard part of every activist’s Facebook Timeline. The imbalance suggested that the cash register manufacturers had spent up big to make sure that they bury any dissenting voices under a mountain of positive reinforcement. Like every other new major technology that hits the market, this one is worth a lot of money and nobody wants the online conspiracy theorists and socialist bleeding hearts to spoil the party.
A bit of digging around in the online media sites and in the bowels of the subversive blogosphere turned up a couple of interesting facts. The first was that not all supermarket managers thing that self serve checkouts are all that great! (I know!) It seems that customers just aren’t as efficient at putting their purchases through the barcode scanners and weighing their cabbages as a pro cashier (no! really?). One major American supermarket chain is actually removing the self checkout units from their stores in order to improve their sales volumes. At the same time, their main competitor is planning on installing 10,000 units in their stores in the next year alone. The mega-corporation that manufactures the machines estimates that they will sell 60,000 of them every year by 2018.
The supermarket demographic do have a voice in this conversation, saying that it is difficult to find people to fill the cashier jobs that they already have and this is the best solution. Officials in the retail industry have been quick to join the dots and say that it isn’t their fault that they can’t find people to work for them and so they aren’t really getting rid of any jobs. In reality, I think that they have trouble finding experienced staff and the automatic cash registers are cheaper than training kids to do the job (the self checkout units never want a day off either). Of course there is no mention of what the long term goals of integrating this technology are but it is fairly easy to see the broad strokes of it even in its infancy.
Retail Service- Then & Now
Many years ago, in the Dark Ages of the 1960s, I remember that the supermarket used to employ somebody to put your groceries into a bag for you while you watched the cashier add up your bill. This archaic system was streamlined and the poor old box boy lost his after school job as cashiers had to double as packers as well. Other chains offered cheap groceries in exchange for using their DIY packing system. Soon, we had forgotten the box boy and, with the introduction of laser scanners and digital transactions the process was speeded up even further with computers tracking the scan rates of the cashiers to ensure that they met efficiency standards. Gradually, the digital technology became the accepted norm and cashiers no longer even needed basic math skills as the electronic register told them how much change they need to make. As the skill level dropped from being a personal representative of the business who filled the vitally important point of sale role the cashier became just another replaceable cog in the corporate machine.
Having negated the need to put much of a human face on their business through the monopolization of the grocery markets and by desensitizing their customers to the digital beep of the barcode reader, the next step is to remove the cashier altogether. This isn’t altogether surprising as most of these low paid positions are probably going to face becoming automated by the march of technological evolution. What is disturbing about this is the plan by the corporate overlords to make being trained essential to being a customer.
I don’t feel the need to be trained by my local supermarket chain in how I can be a more efficient customer and, in all likelihood, people of my generation aren’t the primary target of this technology. It is the schoolboys with their pockets full of shoplifted candy who will become the integrated customers of tomorrow. It is probably worth the cost of a few packets of candy to invest it the education of their young customers.