Self-Checkout Vortex

Interior view of an old time style general store, located in Rabbit Hash KY.  Shelves and counters jammed with merchandise.

Well-stocked interior of the Rabbit Hash KY General Store.
No self-checkout scanning robots to be found for miles.

It is easy!  It saves time!  These are the reasons to use the self-scan checkout at the large retail stores.  Self-checkout has been around for many years now, and the primary goal of the large companies which utilize them is to reduce the number of actual human staff they have to pay - especially, if God forbid, the company had to pay a decent wage or provide benefits.  That is a 'nother rabbit hole to go down, but worth looking at briefly, because the other reasons to install these machines is to reduce theft and to track inventory.                            
        Ah, to go back to those simpler times, when the cashier and the stock clerk knew who you were!  Now, the store and the self-checkout technology both assume that you - yes, you the dear customer, is out to rip-off the place every chance you get.  Most of us really try to suppress our larcenous impulses.  But it does not take much imagination to see how many self-enrichment opportunities present themselves at a store with few human eyes and cashiers, but the robots are tasked with stopping the pilferers, and coaching everyone into compliance with their orders and alarms.  
          The worst are the "mean self-checkout robots".  We all have encountered them over the years, and sane people have probably learned to ignore them by now.  Not me!
        The machines selected by Kroger, unfortunately, fall into the 'mean robot' category.  I shop at Kroger a lot, but that does not mean I appreciate their robots with the Storm Trooper attitude!  I almost got into a fight with one early on, due to my preference of paper over plastic.  The paper bags were conveniently placed in a stack on a shelf by the scanner, so all one had to do was grab one, open it up and put it on the bagging platform.  The robot immediately began yelling at me!  "ARE YOU USING YOUR OWN BAG?"  The video touch screen said the same thing, but had the questions, "YES" or "NO".  The answer clearly was "NO" since I did not use my bag, I used Kroger's bag, so that is the button I hit.  The scanner became more irate and yelled, "REMOVE UNSCANNED ITEMS FROM THE BAGGING AREA !!"   I had not scanned anything yet, and was perplexed by how pissed off the robotic female voice was getting.  It stopped short of yelling, "GET YOUR UNSCANNED CRAP OUT OF THE BAGGING AREA OR I WILL SUMMON THE MANAGER AND BAN YOU FROM THE STORE!!"
        A single human is tasked with monitoring eight of these self-checkout scanning robots, and dealing with the flustered customers who are yelling back at the scanners, or getting ready to beat them with large cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew.  Unfortunately I did not have that item in my basket, and was frantically searching for a suitable substitute when the over-worked clerk came over to see what the issue was.  The answer was to scan my 'customer loyalty' card first, then put the paper bags in the bagging area, and answer "yes" to the question as to whether I was using my own bags - even though it was a lie, because I was using theirs.  So much for the robots keeping the customers honest.
        To add to the haranguing of these robots, beware of using one with a partner who is unaware of how touchy they can be, or is inebriated.  Touching, leaning, or falling upon the bagging carrousel will result in loud admonitions to remove the unscanned items from the bagging area.  And therein lies the secret of this particular self-checkout machine - it is weighing everything!  It weighs everything going onto the bagging area, and checks it against what the barcode says the item actually weighs.  Any variation, whether it be by inattention, a rampaging rodent, your passed out partner, or purposely trying to pull a fast one over the robot, will result in its shrieking wrath!
        Because we simply want to get our stuff and get out of the store, we humans put up with this.  In fact, we learn to tune it out if its hissy fit has not risen to the level of halting the whole checkout process.  But sometimes the self-checkout robots have a new trick up their sleeves, or would that be up their circuit boards?
        Recently while at Walmart, my wife and I were scanning our critically needed items, like party size Double Stuff Oreos and Volcano Taco Chips.  Maybe our excitement at the prospect of devouring these epicurean delights got to us, and we committed some infraction which caused the machine shut down.  My wife and I try do to be on our very best human behavior when utilizing the self-checkout robots, because we do not like being yelled at or slow the process.  Whatever the problem was, a silent alarm summoned a very sour women attired in a yellow vest - which stated it was manufactured using six plastic pop bottles.  She was not pleased with life in general, nor the indignity of having to fix whatever problem arose out of the interaction of the robot and two smirking senior citizens.
        Without a word the clerk scanned her top-secret barcode, tapped a few codes on the touch screen, received a few more encrypted codes from the machine, and responded appropriately. Suddenly a video of my wife and me appeared on the monitor!  It looked like our hands were working a three-card Monte game on a folding card table, or maybe it was a shell game.  Whatever was going on, I was impressed by our dexterity!  The clerk was not!  She re-ran the little drama two more times.  Then she said, "It's okay," punched more buttons, and left.  We could resume our checkout process, and no law would be called today, but I was more curious as to where this camera was located.
        High above us, discretely attached to one of the metal bars comprising the roof truss, was a small black lens.  Looking around the area we spotted them above every self-checkout position, and over the human staffed cash registers as well.  This Walmart was wired like a Caesar's Palace gaming floor in Las Vegas!  And just as impressive was the fact this robot had an algorithm programed into it to detect suspicious hand movements which may indicate theft.  Within a nano-second the robot had shut the whole checkout operation down and summoned Miss Congeniality.  
        There is also a camera pointed directly at the customer's face, which is displayed on a small monitor mounted in plain sight by each scanner.  The customer's attention is so focused on not making a mistake, and getting through the process without a hitch, that all the surveillance is rendered invisible.  These machines are made by NCR, formerly National Cash Register of Dayton, Ohio, and they do not yell at the customer - but they sure are watching us like a hawk! 

        I get it!  This is faster for the customer, and cheaper for the big corporations than paying many employees to ring up customer merchandise.  These advancements in technology also make sure the humans do not steal the store blind, and also silently order new stuff to be delivered to the store.
        Nevertheless, it still amazes me how insidious this whole technology-to-human interaction has become, because it is everywhere.  While I may sound like a Luddite, I am not.  I embrace, and enjoy, many of the benefits of the ever expanding modern age.  Life would be tough without my computer, along with its email and search abilities.  Evening television viewing would less satisfying by not being able to stream Netflix, etc.  The list can go on.
        What I do notice is when the technology to human interface goes awry - which for me tends to be at a store self-checkout machine.  One of these days I am going to snap!  The store better not have a folding chair handy, because their checkout robot will get a beating worthy of WWF Smackdown!

        Old fashioned personal shopping, and checkout by a human, can still be found in fine establishments like Dollar General.  Or to really go retro,  find places like the Rabbit Hash General Store, located in beautiful downtown Rabbit Hash, Kentucky.  The only concession to modernity in the Rabbit Hash store is a large walk-in beer cooler.  They occasionally barter chickens, eggs, and homegrown produce for merchandise.  Now, that is customer service!  This is the kind of place one may encounter when hitting the road without a map.

Old single floor wood building with a long open wood front porch, containing the Rabbit Hash General Store.  An old style Coca Cola painted sign completes the scene.

The Rabbit Hash General Store in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky is decidedly low tech.



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