The TechnøGrouch
Where crappy technology gets what it deserves


Grocery Do-It-Yourself Checkout

by Jonathan Stars

About two years ago I started using the U-scan Express checkout at my local Meijer grocery store. Meijer is a 170-store Midwest chain. Using the U-scan wasn't voluntarily. On that particular night it was the only lane open after midnight. That's my favorite time to shop because there are so few customers and the only people you have to dodge are the stock crew.

U-scan took a little getting used to. But I kind of liked not having to wait behind people with carts full of groceries when all I usually have is about ten items--one of which could be ice cream on its way to becoming a liquid drink. What I didn't like about the process was the things that go wrong and require assistance from the staff person in charge of the six registers.

A few weeks ago I went to one of the registers with five items. Everything that could go wrong with the checkout process went wrong.

The self-checkout I used had a worn touch screen, so it was very difficult to get started. Touch. Touch again. Touch harder. Finally I lay my finger lengthwise across the start button, and I was in.

If you've never used a system like this, an irritatingly pleasant voice encourages you every step of the way. But it's a little embarrassing, as if it's saying you don't know what you're doing. I've learned to press the onscreen buttons quickly to bypass the voice. Of course that night, with the worn out screen, the voice nagged me at every step. Thank God it's never shouted out for a price check on any personal items.

I scanned the first product. For some reason it needed cashier assistance. The cashier worked it out from her post ten feet away.

The scanner couldn't read the barcode on the second item, some coffee creamer. It looked okay to me. No scratches or frost on it. Since the third item was another container of the same creamer, I got the idea to scan that instead. Clever, right? But instead of putting the unreadable one in the bag, I put the good one in. Duh!

So once again I'm holding the creamer that won't scan. When I tried to take the readable one out of the bag, the accusing voice told everyone in the store that I should "put the last item back in the bag." In goes the unreadable one. Is there a variaton to the weight of a pint? The voice kept at me, so I gave up and put the creamer with the good barcode back in the bag and took the problem creamer to the cashier where she typed in the code for me.

My fourth purchase was lettuce. With produce, you have to press a button and enter some numbers that represent the specific item. Uh, oh. I hadn't written down the code. So now I'm looking in this little book with names and prices of produce. Is it leaf lettuce or head lettuce, Boston or Bibb? What do I know? By this time most of the customers in the store have lined up in back of me 'cause they wanted to get behind the guy with only five items. The pressure is on!

Fifth was a box of instant oatmeal with a "quick sale" price tag covering the barcode. Of course it needed special assistance. But my cashier/prison guard was trading places with a guy so she could go on break. Out came her drawer and in went his. Now he has to crack open all the rolls of coins. Doh! Behind me I could hear a chorus of disgusted exhales. I think I could even hear a squish as their eyes rolled in their sockets.

I needed to scan a special keychain tag so my mother's church can get credit for my purchase. I figured it's like a coupon, so I clicked the touch screen for coupons. The voice rebuked me that I had to--guess what--give it to the cashier. He wasn't done with the change yet. With the eyes of the other customers burning a hole in the back of my neck, it seemed like an hour before the cashier entered the correct code for me.

Next, my credit card wouldn't scan, so it was back to the cashier.

How you sign your name is just nuts. You have to write on a separate little window called a VeriFone while hovering your hand in the air. The place where you would normally rest the heel of your hand is covered with buttons. Whoever thought that up? Why not just put the buttons on top? I later found the buttons are deactivated when you sign. But how would anyone know that?

As I signed, I caught my fingernail on the edge of the little window and bent it double. (Yeow!), and the signature became a discontinuous facsimile of my handwriting. The screen encourage me to press F1. F1? Why not "OK" or "Submit?"

The voice commanded, "Please take your receipt," but the receipt printer was out of paper. The cashier lumbered over and refilled the little printer, then strolled back to his station and pressed some buttons to make it print again. The paper caught sideways, and I got an unreadable accordion. He printed another one from his station, and I was on my way. The other shoppers broke into applause. Five items--15 minutes. Thank goodness I didn't have any ice cream!

Now to be fair, this is usually (though never completely) a reasonably painless process. I'm sure that someday it will be very smooth. But after two years we shoppers are still the guinea pigs. And if you shop after 11:00 PM, the U-scan is often your only choice.

I'm looking forward to the day items are scanned as I put them into the cart or as I go through the exit door. Of course I'm sure the first time I use it the alarm will sound, searchlights will blind me, and security guards will arrive with guns drawn and throw me onto my face shouting, "Onto the floor, longhair!"

I can't help but think the stores should give us a price break when we use the U-scan. After all, aren't we temporary staff?

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