In the do-it-yourself age we live in, it’s become commonplace to see people throw aside needed help or assistance in an effort to exert their own individual abilities, or lack thereof.
Decades ago you couldn’t get gasoline without being serviced by an attendant. Today, it’s called “full service” – the place where bionic old folk with herniated bowels and rich elitists come together to bridge the social gap. They only do it to get their cars filled up with gas and windows washed by overweight, greasy men… but hey, it’s progress.
In my first column a year ago, I ridiculed the notion that our generation should be remembered as the “I” generation. Regrettably, I’m now not so sure how inaccurate that label is. I hate to sound like TIME Magazine – who named “you” its Person of the Year – but it does seem like everything is about the individual these days.
Until only a few years ago, if you wanted to pay for your groceries, you lined up like everyone else to have your goods scanned, totaled and bagged. Today, more and more grocery stores are offering self-service checkouts, where the do-it-yourselfers line up to do it themselves. The self-serve kiosks at Vons epitomize the trend. While I must assume they were installed to reduce cost and speed up the check out process through the elimination of the middleman, anyone who’s used these machines knows this is not the case.
For starters, you can’t bag multiple, duplicate items at once. Meaning, if you have bags of Frito’s, you have to scan each bag separately. This doesn’t seem like too much of a pain, but when you replace chips with 60 inch wooden slabs at Home Depot – another place with self-service check out – it gets grueling. It’s also annoying when you have 20 restless people behind you in line wanting you to hurry up and you can’t deflect blame on the cashier.
Another problem at the supermarket comes with groceries that don’t have barcodes. Things like fruits and vegetables, for example. This is where the age-old honor rule comes into play. Since you can’t swipe a banana – pathetic, I know – you have to type into the machine how many you are buying. The obvious upside to this is that you can bag 10 lbs of fruit while telling the talking kiosk that you’re buying two limes. It doesn’t know any better. It’s just a talking machine, after all. Of course, you could also bag $50 worth of meat and tell the machine you bought Skittles, but it’d be a bit more obvious. Jedi mind tricks like these would obviously not be possible if you were to go through a real checkout line.
Ignoring the fact that the supermarket, which pays its cashiers around $12 an hour, is saving around $20,000 a year by not having to hire extra workers, I really see only one legitimate upside to these machines: privacy. For all those times you were afraid as a 17-year-old to buy condoms, fear no more, because the machine will not judge you. You can also forget all those awkward late-night moments where you bought an apple, lighter, and tin foil to build a makeshift bong, only to be laughed at by every employee in the store. And for those who really needed to buy some Vagisil but couldn’t muster the nerve to stand in line holding the tube, your times of distress are over. Take that, yeast infection!
But I ask you, is all this privacy a good thing? I’m sure the person buying Vagasil thinks so. Still, I think that these self-service checkout stations are taking a chunk out of this nation’s culture. As a kid, I loved watching food slide miraculously down that black belt towards the typically forlorn-looking, scraggly-haired, middle-aged woman working the cashier. It would be a pity and a blow to both our lifestyle and workforce if in 20 years every market had a self-serve checkout. Unless they figure out how to give out free food samples. That’d be nice.