Curse of the robot checkout
In shops up and down the country, human staff are being replaced by soulless – and very bossy – self-service tills. It’s high time we fought back
Quiet rebellion is in the air. It will peter out altogether when we all get used to this Orwellian horror dressed up in the name of progress. I noticed it last week in an establishment in London’s High Street Kensington, where there were 14 self-service checkouts and only two measly manned checkouts in operation. What was interesting was how the queue at the checkout with a human in charge was 10 deep, while there were no queues at any of the self-service counters. We were rebelling by inconveniencing ourselves. A very British coup.
‘I refuse to use those things,’ hissed the man behind me as he shuffled forward in the queue and pointed at the ugly machines that look like smaller versions of petrol pumps with plastic bags hanging limply from one section. ‘Me, too,’ I said.
Then a youngish woman with an Hermès bag and frilly collar – not unlike those collars made famous by Princess Di – started up. ‘Every week they just sack another two people and move in more machines. We shouldn’t stand for it. Drives me mad.’ There was almost a ripple of applause.
These contraptions drive a lot of us potty. In some shops there’s no choice at all. My local store only has selfservice checkouts – unless you just want a packet of ciggies (now hidden from view like in liquor stores in the rougher parts of Harlem) and schewing gum.
The other day I nearly got arrested for violent conduct (against the machine, that is) while stocking up on groceries for the weekend. I swiped a two-for-one packet of courgettes but the scanner couldn’t cope. I tried again and again, and finally dropped the veg in the bag, which, of course, resulted in a bossy recorded message telling everyone in the vicinity that there was an ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’. I pressed a button requesting ‘assistance’, then hit the same button harder and harder until a red light lit up. A pleasant young man appeared from nowhere and calmed me down. He suggested I start again, and helped me remove all the items from the bag.
Now, I’m not saying we should go back to the days when someone used to put petrol in your tank for you – well, I am, actually – but surely Frilly Collar has a point. We shouldn’t stand for it, by which I mean we should indeed opt for the inconvenience of queuing (something we’re meant to be good at) rather than helping to swell further the ranks of the unemployed.
Never mind the lack of human contact (my wife knows most of the checkout girls’ names in our local Fulham Broadway food store and can tell you what many of their children are studying at university), it’s the nonsense the shops talk about wanting to speed up the paying process that riles me.
And then there’s the guff that selfservice checkouts are entirely in the interest of shoppers, when everyone knows it’s about the stores cutting costs.
The machines ask such silly questions. Do I want a bag for life? Do I have a loyalty card? Then there’s the guilt. Have I selected the wrong price for my blueberry muffin? Will the long arm of the store security tap me on the shoulder as I leave? And am I really so dim that I can’t follow some simple instructions and prevent an alarm from going off? Well, yes, actually, I am. We all are. Just stand and watch what happens at these checkouts – and see the irritation bubbling.
Mind you, I was flattered the other day in an incident that does merit a human relationship of sorts. When I tried to buy a bottle of wine, a woman staff member asked for my ID. I’m 57.
Obviously, these machines are open to abuse. Expensive cuts of meat can be entered manually if the tag is missing or if it won’t scan for one reason or another, and when entering the item code, you can opt for the code of cheaper or smaller item if you want to cheat the system. As long as the item is scanned, the weight is mostly irrelevant – or, so, I gather, m’lud.
Self-service checkouts were first introduced to Britain in the mid- 1990s. Their prevalence is hard to nail down, but as of December 2010, there were 21,000 of them, according to a retail study by RBR, an international consulting firm.That number trebled by 2012.
It seems odd that for a country that only gets by on its ‘service industries’ there is so little service in some stores. You go shopping and spend good money, and then the store makes you do all the work once you’ve finished.
And it’s not as if you get a discount for scanning items yourself and generally doing what someone was once paid to do. It’s a blatant capitalist conspiracy, and I’m wondering why those Occupy protesters haven’t pitched their tents in the nation’s self-service shops now that they’ve been moved on from St Paul’s Cathedral.
I would join them – and it would be much warmer in winter.
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