Checking out do-it-yourself checkout line

September 05, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

It was my first time, and you know how it is your first time.

The sweaty palms, the racing heart, the feverish sense of anticipation ... oh, yeah, the self-checkout lane at SuperFresh can do that to a guy.

Actually, the Timonium store where I found myself yesterday has had self-checkout lanes - or automatic checkout machines (ACMs) as they're known in the trade - for three years now.

But I had just started shopping there, defecting from a supermarket up the road that, without the requisite 200 acres of floor space and a salad bar the size of an aircraft carrier deck, now seemed like something from the Mesozoic Era.

It was a little after 9 a.m. when I approached one of the four self-checkout lanes with a few modest items chosen especially for this trial run: a half-dozen apples, a can of Bumblebee tuna and a box of Eggo apple-cinnamon frozen waffles.

At first, the self-checkout machine looked intimidating.

Look, I am not one who easily embraces new technology. So to me, this thing looked like the control panel of Skylab.

For several minutes, I stared at the machine with the wide-eyed, slack-jawed look of the true rube, until an employee standing nearby asked if she could help.

Her name was Patricia Nash. She was an alert, friendly woman and in just a few seconds, she walked me through the checkout process.

Actually, if you don't freak out over the endless choices offered on the monitor screen (Overview, Coupons, Scanning Tips, No Bar Code, Payment Options, etc.), the machine itself will walk you through the process.

The tuna and frozen waffles I simply scanned the way the cashier does in a regular checkout lane, although without the studied indifference she brings to the maneuver.

The apples were only a bit trickier. What you do is get the produce number off that annoying little sticker found on every piece of fruit these days. Then you enter the number, using a special keypad, and place the apples on a scale, which automatically weighs them.

Then you pay up by swiping a credit card, feeding cash into special slots or writing a check at another counter.

Then you bag your groceries and you're gone.

Nash, a long-time employee, said the self-checkout lanes are enormously popular, often attracting more customers than the regular checkout lanes.

And they attract customers of all ages, she said. Contrary to what you might think, senior citizens don't shy away from this new technology at all.

"I see old people who sail right through them," she said. "And little kids love it. For them, it's like playing `Store.'"

As I checked myself out, though, I realized that, in a lot of ways, I missed dealing with a real, live human being behind the register.

I missed the snappy conversations I had with the cashiers, conversations that ranged from my views on paper-vs.-plastic bags all the way up to whether it was hot enough for either one of us.

I missed eavesdropping on the sullen, gum-snapping cashier at the next register yapping to her girlfriend at another register about the idiot she was dating.

I even missed the ceremonial changing of the cash tray, an aggravating, time-consuming ritual that always seemed to take place exactly when it was my turn to be checked out.

Finally, I missed the way the cashiers always seemed startled when I called them by name, as if I were some kind of nut-job stalker, even though they all wore nametags.

But this was all about progress, my friends.

Technology marches on, and he who does not march along with it will be trampled.

As I talked with Pat Nash, we were joined by store manager Bill Snyder.

"People love these machines," Snyder said. "They're definitely the wave of the future."

Fearing that all this was striking a far too positive tone for my readers, I felt compelled to ask whether any of the store's customers - the vast majority no doubt being honest, salt-of-the-earth types like myself - ever tried to "beat" the self-checkout machines, either by not scanning certain items or dashing out without paying.

Snyder said this rarely happened, since there were vicious Rottweilers lurking under each machine that were trained to lunge and tear to pieces any dishonest customers.

OK, fine, he didn't really say that.

What he did say, rather delicately, was: "The customers know there's always someone down here monitoring [these] machines."

And if that someone is as sharp as Pat Nash seemed to be, I pity the poor fool who tries to beat them, even for a measly can of cling peaches.

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