Buying autonomy at the check-out counter

by Rob Horning

23 January 2007


I’m glad to see someone else take an interest in the subject of self-checkout lines. The Economist blogger comes to some of the same conclusions I did when I posted about this a few months ago after an ill-fated trip to Home Depot, only she is far more sanguine about their usefulness:

Much more important, however, ringing up my own purchases obviates what is, for me, the worst feature of buying groceries:  waiting for the checkout girl.  (It is almost always a girl.)  I can be driven to near-insane heights of irritation by someone slowly counting out the money in her drawer while I wait to pay, or chatting merrily to the customers or other employees.  On the other hand, I am perfectly comfortable waiting patiently for my own stupidity to subside.  Self-checkout lines may seem to be an imposition by profit-hungry companies, but in reality, they provide an extremely valuable service to those of us who are terminally impatient:  they give us the illusion of control.

As my frequent complaints about Duane Reade attest, I completely understand this kind of impatience and can see how doing the checkout labor myself—even though the cost of that labor is already priced into what I’m buying—could seem an acceptable fee for mitigating it, particularly when there are no gossip magazines on hand to page through. I don’t agree that checkout lines lower prices, though. Competition lowers prices; otherwise money saved on checkout-clerk labor likely goes straight to the store’s bottom line. Plus, many customers see the opportunity to bag for themselves as a benefit—an extension of autonomy, as the blogger herself does—thus there is no pressure for stores to drop prices as a consequence of such schemes. Better to see this experience of control as itself a product that stores will sell (for the price of the consumer’s labor) for as long as they can get away with it. Eventually “autonomy” will feel like inconvenience and impertinence again, and the product will become worthless, and people will seek to buy autonomy in some other arena where there’s an institutionally created logjam to circumvent.

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