There’s this new concept in grocery stores. I think Albertson’s, oddly enough, innovated it. Just about every store around here now has “self checkout” lanes. The concept is simple – you scan in your own stuff, pay, then leave.

At first glance it’s a devilishly simple concept – just scan the things yourself and place it in the bags. Usually they’re arranged four in a “quad” formation, with one person at a desk to oversee them. I have mixed feelings on the one person thing – it could be that they’ve just eliminated the need for three workers, or it could be that that one worker is four times as effective.

Anywho, the first several times I saw these things I avoided them. Mostly it was because I was in a hurry and the last thing I needed to do was learn a new system. In fact, I saw these things deserted even though the lines for cashiers were quite long. Eventually though I decided to try one of these things out.

The first thing you have to do is scan whatever card you have to save money. This, ironically, is an advantage Wal-Mart has because they’re cheap to begin with. I don’t really mind the whole “savings card” idea at grocery stores (I have a keychain full of them), except for the fact that half the time these fuckers won’t scan. Anywho, you scan your card and then you scan your items. Once you scan your items, you place them in bags to the side. The bags and their dispensers are on a device which acts as a scale, which is how the machine figures out whether or not you have placed the item in the bag yet. Additionally, the system knows what the item would reasonably weigh, so it’s not enough to throw just any item in the bag. If you have produce, you place it on the scanner and either key in the code on the sticker or go through the interface to find the item in question. The scanner also acts as a scale and additionally has a camera so the overseer can make sure the item is what you say it is.

On the whole, this isn’t really a bad idea. It’s often times quicker than waiting in line, especially if you have just a few items. Sometimes though it just annoys the crap out of me. For starters, you have to do everything right. You have to scan each item individually and place them in the bag. If you get “off” from this rhythym then the system halts and the sixteen year old they hired yesterday gets to come over and place it in the bag for you. I think if you waited long enough (like ten seconds) then the problem would resolve itself, but in the meantime some kid gets to have a power trip. Occasionally the system gets confused on whether or not you placed the item in the bag already and then you have to “fake it out” – once I had to place an item in the bag along with a different item (so presumably the weight thing isn’t that precise).

And then there’s the payment method. Generally I use my check card by scanning it in the little scan thing. With a check card you can either do a debit transaction (which requires your PIN) or a credit card transaction (which requires your signature). Of all the places, Wal-Mart is the only one I’ve seen which lets you sign right on the scanning thing – even though some other stores use the exact same device to process your card. If you pick credit card at some other places then you have to go to the main cashier to sign and get your reciept. Not only does this negate the purpose (that you don’t want to interact with a cashier), but I always somehow seem to hit the one at Kroger while the main guy is taking a piss. Consequently, I go with the debit card option, even though my Wife doesn’t want me to – it’s just easier. Of course Wal-Mart’s little signing pad thingy has the resolution of an Atari 2600, so your signature never looks like your actual signature, so it’s kinda pointless to sign at all, especially since your handwriting is so botched by the unnatural angle you have to sign with in the fist place. And this is assuming the piece of shit holds still long enough to sign at all.

Now that people are starting to use these things it’s not uncommon to wait in line for them – and without fail I always get behind someone who doesn’t know how to use it. This isn’t awful – I didn’t know how to use them at one point either – but it never fails that the person has to pay in cash, feed bills into the machine (which, to its credit, has a much higher bill tolerance than a Coke machine), and then can never, ever figure out that the slot where the change bills come out is right below the scale. I guess it could be worse – it could give you your change in dollar coins like vending machines in post offices do.

The most amusing thing is the separate printer they have for coupons. You know, I’m never going to use these coupons (they’re never for anything you buy and hey, you don’t want to look cheap anyway) and I never wanted them when the human tellers would hand them to me and fill my wallet. At least now I can leave them there. Come to think of it, I would hate to see how these things redeem coupons, since it asks if you have any before you pay. This is of course right after they announce your total quite loudly – not sure if I want people in the back of Wal-Mart to know how much money I spentm but whatever.

Some stores at least have the plastic bags on a turnstyle, so you can get to more of them if you need – others just have two dispensers. Since at this point you’re too paranoid to move anything, lest the system dispatch someone to assist you and make you feel stupid, you tend to put everything into those two bags – consequently it’s only obvious when you’ve got too much when it’s too late. Fortunately there’s a “skip bagging” option for things like 12-packs of cans.

Ironically the other night I was willing to wait through a line of 2-3 people in each of the self-checkout lanes, just to glance over and see that the manned lane next to it had no one in it. I wonder if that means we secretly really don’t want to interact with the employees at a grocery store.

And all of this is really a new take that we are being trusted a lot more at the grocery store. I mean, unless they’re really being attentive and/or there’s something I’m missing, there’s nothing to keep you from just not scanning something in your cart. Now I see Albertson’s is introducing this new feature where you take a scanning gun with you and scan items as you go – then you put the scanning gun on a central station and pay there. This is crazy to me and would seem even more susecptible, except that you have to register to use this service so in theory they could hunt you down if needed.

But for all my complaints, if I have just a couple of things to check out with I’m still going to use this. But like those “voice recognition” services, I’m starting to get annoyed by the concept of “natural” human/machine interaction that requires you to act in a really unnatural way.