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Self-checkout and self-importance

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006

Ever since I first encountered a self-checkout line, at a deeply dysfunctional Pathmark on Greys Ferry Avenue in Philadelphia, I’ve despised them with an intensity that even I’ll admit is entirely unfounded. So I was cheered by this Consumerist item airing one of my fundamental complaints about them—rather than getting service you pay for, you do the company’s job for them, for nothing. I don’t think it makes sense to discount the prices for those who check themselves out, though, to answer the Consumerist’s poll. I just think the self-checkout lines are like those panic buttons mounted on stoplights at busy intersections that have no effect other than to mollify the impatient pedestrian. The self-checkout is basically a giant pacifier for people who can’t stand the enfeebling passivity waiting in line forces on them—standing in line, after all, is what the Commies made you do. Of course, the intolerant who hate lines are probably the same people who when driving execute pointless lane changes that only exacerbate traffic congestion while heightening the danger for everyone on the road. Self checkout is basically about self-aggrandizement; it’s about having a moment where you get to seize illusory control over your situation and triumph over others—the fools too lazy to get out of the line. With the self checkouts the company stages a little farcical drama in which you get to be the hard-working hero, pulling up bootstraps and rolling up sleeves and making the system work to your own benefit through your own effort—“Get out of my way, I’ll show you how to run a register.” It’s a petty sham display of self-reliance, but a little of that goes a long way for most Americans. It’s not like we’re going to go back to nature and self-sufficiency for real: consumerism—a fragile, collective process implicating all of society collectively—is how we get what’s necessary for our lives, so we’d like to dress it up with as much of the trappings of rugged individualism as possible.


Anyway, it’s not just the egocentricity involved but the logic behind these self-checkout lines that infuriates me. The company seems to be saying this: “We can’t hire employees who can operate a cash register efficiently, but we are willing to let you do their work for them and subsidize their paycheck with your labor.” So unless you refuse to shop at such places, the time you spend in their lines becomes a kind of indentured servitude that you are “allowed’ to work off in the self-checkout area. Meanwhile, the cost of the labor you are replacing is already priced into the goods you are buying, so you are purchasing a service that you don’t receive and helping build the disincentives from it ever improving. The cashiers certainly know that if they work slower, they’ll be able to do less work for the same pay while driving the most unpleasant customers to deal with—the impatient ones—away. They are already staging a permanent slowdown (at least at Duane Reade they are); this only sweetens their rewards.


Perhaps if the self-checkouts replaced cashiers altogether, it would be different. But it is not as though this would improve efficiency. If there is anyone likely to be mroe befuddled by a cash register than a cashier, it’s the average customer. Everytime I’ve been in Home Depot, I’ve watched customers sudddenly lose all intuitive grasp of how this thing called commerce works and be reduced to having to follow directions on how to scan an item with a barcode reader. And then they founder helplessly, trying to crack the credit-card-swiping puzzle. Hmm. Maybe if I lay it flat on the touch screen it will work. Maybe if I jam it in like it’s a hotel door key. Inevitably they have to ask an employee how to do it anyway, only now you’ve turned the cashier who was too incompetent to do the job in the first place into a teacher (proving the old adage) whose communication skills now will determine how fast you can get home with your wet vac or your bag of nails.


If RFID technology fulfills its promises, affluent shoppers most likely won’t have to worry about any of this anymore. They’ll register a credit card with a store, which will be detected by an EZ-Pass-like sensor along with all the goods they are taking out of the store on any given visit. This will fulfil the retailer’s most ambitious dream of loss prevention, making shoplifting virtually impossible while eliminating the primary source of loss, the clerk running the register. At this point the line between shopping and surveillance will have virtually disappeared, and the activities will be understood to suit each other perfectly, to be natural conseqeunces of each other. Of course you want the retailers to know all your preferences and predilections, otherwise how else could they tailor their messages to you and save you time and energy? Of course its good that all your belongings are tagged and trackable—it’s what made shopping so convenient and hassle free, no more of those annoying checkout lines.

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