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Season 7, Episode 25 -- Master Of My Romaine

When I was a kid, I loved going grocery shopping with my mom. I liked the way everything was arranged, the lighting, even the music (those soft, instrumental versions of “today’s hits.”) Sometimes, Mom would let me push the cart, and while she always had her list (which I’m guessing rarely varied much, and she likely had committed to memory), when we’d get to the cereal aisle, she’d always ask me what I wanted.

But my favorite part of the grocery shopping routine was the checkout, not because I could pick out candy or read the tabloid headlines. All those years ago, before UPC codes and scanners, the checkers keyed in the prices (they had what used to be called – and maybe still is – “10-key skills”), weighed produce on analog scales and had to be able to separate “taxable” from “non-taxable” items. It was an art, and a good checker was fast, fun to watch, and could keep up a conversation without missing a beat or making a mistake.

But times change and technology – while necessary – sometimes wipes away some of the fun, the art and the skill we once experienced or at least, witnessed. Today, grocery checkers are little more than folks who pass items across a piece of glass, biding their time until lunch break or their next job somewhere – anywhere – else.

In recent years, the industry has put the checkout into the hands of we, the customers. And while I understand the business strategy behind it, the “self-checkout” is not my favorite use of technology for several reasons, not the least of which is that it puts tasks in the hands of people who aren’t qualified, namely, me.

As a lifelong grocery shopping devotee, eventually I knew I’d have to change with the times: UPC codes, expanded produce sections with fruits and vegetables I’d never heard of, and new and (to some) exciting floorplans to accommodate a changing customer base and its needs.

I adapted, accepted and eventually, thrived as an adult shopper in this New World Order. I watched as some aisles spilled over with new products and SKUs (stock keeping units) while other categories all but died, wheeling my well-oiled ergonomic cart through the grocery maze to the sounds of not Muzak, but popular music playing over the PA.

That brings me to Sunday. I pulled into my local grocer with a short, specific list I had committed to memory (just like Mom). I nodded to the young man hauling in a train of carts from the parking lot, grabbing one off the end before disappearing into the misty abyss of the produce section.

I needed some vegetables, bread and pickles, along with a few other essentials. After grabbing what I needed, I cruised a few additional aisles, browsing for opportunities or hidden treats. I found a couple, but nothing out of the ordinary. Within 10 minutes, I had 12 to 15 items, and I was ready to check out.

Now, realize that I had hit the store at one of its peaks, the Sunday post-church/pre-football crowd, and that meant long checkout lines, and folks with lots of items. Usually, I choose a “human” checkout lane because I believe if a real person checks me out (and by “checks me out” I mean scans my groceries; not sure what you were thinking), presumably I’m creating a level of job security for someone in an era where machines and automation threaten just about every position, and that makes me feel good. And given my long history with, and affinity toward, grocery shopping, I still see it as a place run by living, breathing human beings. Some things, in my little world, should never change.

But Sunday, as the “human” checkout lines were teeming “human” customers, I deemed job security to be “secure.” Moreover, I wasn’t in the mood to wait in line, so I eyed the self-checkout and found an open unit. (I’m not sure what we should call these things: units, stations, pods, kiosks. “Unit” just feels right to me.)

I mentioned earlier that one reason I don’t care for the self-checkout is that it potentially takes away jobs. And I do believe that. But the other reason I haven’t typically used these units is that I have a long and not-so-successful history with them. Depending on the type of unit (some are more friendly to me than others; making them extremely “human” in some respects), I’ve had wide-ranging results, from “decent” to “oh-my-God-just-read-the-F*$*ing-price-and-stop-telling-me-what-I’m-doing-wrong-or-I’m-gonna-leave-this-stupid-cart-right-here-and-run-out-the-door” failures.

Unluckily for my family, they’ve all witnessed some of these experiences. Luckily for me, they (my family) have also helped me slow down, follow the prompts the “bot” or “avatar” is providing and in general improved my self-checkout skills to the point where I can now say that, while it’s never my first checkout choice (remember job security?), I have made self-checkout my bitch.

I know to flatten out the UPCs when I have a bag of something. I know how to look up produce by name or photo (which is important when you need to know if you have a simple, everyday cuke or a fancy English cucumber). I know that items must be put directly and immediately into the bagging area after scanning, and I know exactly how and when to input my frequent shopper number. I’m so good that I usually beat the automated voice to the very prompt he or she is giving me. (Take that, technology!)

And so, Sunday I put my sick self-checkout skills to work, on display for all the post-church/pre-football crowd to see, striding confidently to the unit, knowing I’d be checked, bagged and on my way in 90 seconds or less.

But there was on obstacle in my way. She was five-foot-nothing, wearing the company-issued green shirt, black slacks with matching apron. She was the employee assigned to monitor and help all of us who chose -- at their own risk -- self-checkout.

I scanned and bagged my first two items, and as I pulled the third – a simple box of crackers (child’s play) – I looked for the UPC, which was on the bottom of the box. As I slid the box across the scanner, I heard someone (her) say, “It’s on the bottom.”

I turned and there she was, just standing there, looking at me like I was a first-timer. “Uh, thanks,” I replied as I picked up my cauliflower and set it down on the glass so the unit could weight it. As it sat on the glass -- being weighed like a newly-delivered baby -- again I heard her voice: “You have to put it down so it can be weighed.” This time, I didn’t look but simply nodded, moving on to several other items before I grabbed a bag of celery. I scanned the price and then – per protocol and the verbal direction of the automated voice – I entered the quantity (one). As I was doing so, and as the automated voice was telling me to do so – this woman reminded me of the following: “You need to put in the quantity.”

By this point, I felt like someone might be playing a joke on me, and frankly, I was offended. Over the course of time, I had done the hard work, I had taken my lumps, failed and failed again, so many time on the verge of quitting. Yet I persevered, and after all these years, after all the internal struggles, the external swearing, the impatience on the part of myself, my family and even the automated voice that comes out of these heartless machines, I had mastered this process.

And here she was, I’m sure a perfectly delightful person and probably a model employee (though I have no proof to back up either claim), walking me through the process like I had never pedaled this bike before. Like it was my first rodeo. Like I did just fall off the turnip truck. (Turnips, by the way, are easy to check out because generally, there’s only one kind and so if I were you, I’d just “search by name” when looking them up, but you’ll likely have to weigh them, FYI.)

Meanwhile, needy self-checkers -- people far lower on the self-checkout food chain than myself -- were stacking up like firewood all around us: the woman who couldn’t figure out why she had to “put item in bagging area” (the automated voice) rather than just place it right into her cart; the guy across the way who had been waiting for help verifying the price or type of apples he was holding; the young couple buying a 30-pack of cheap beer and needed someone to check their ID.

In that moment, I was the only person who didn’t need help, and yet, I was the only person she was helping. And if you know me, you know that when I need help, I'll gladly (albeit impatiently) accept it. But when I don’t need help, I really, really, really don’t want it. So, instead of making a big deal about it, I decided to simply keep scanning, weighing and bagging without looking at my new “friend” or even acknowledging her presence. I didn’t do it to be an a-hole, I did it to prevent myself from becoming an a-hole, and I did it because the alternative (me being an a-hole) would not be appropriate, and could potentially compromise her job security, which ironically, I thought I was compromising simply by using the self-checkout system.

After all was scanned and done, I turned to her, smiled and said, “Thanks, have a good one,” and pushed my high-performance, ergonomic cart toward the exit, leaving a trail of self-checkout “nubies” in my wake. All I wanted to do was help them, but in this game, it’s every shopper for him/herself, and I'm sure she got to them all sooner or later.

I just hope all those folks got home in time for the football game.

© 2019 David R. Haznaw

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