I fought it. We all did. It crept up on us slowly, almost like a curiosity. This will never work we thought. For some years we were right. Then the powers that be, corporate America, decided enough was enough and fought back. Today, they finally won.
I was in one of the neighborhood Walmart’s. It is near our home, and I only needed one item, a frozen pizza. It was only when I got in line that I realized that there was not a single cashier on duty, not even the token person that does double duty as the customer service representative. It was just going to be between me and the machine.
As someone who has probably employed tens of thousands of cashiers during my professional life, I get it. The scanner does not call in sick. They do not take long breaks. They do not complain about the hours, too many or not enough. They even learned to do a pretty darn good job at counting change back; something of a lost art among our younger generations.
Nevertheless, the machine does not smile when they see me. They do not know or care how my day is going. They may suggestively sell something, not with a cheerful voice, but rather with a message on the screen, sort of like a text. I guess we are all used to that by now.
Stores from fast food to grocery stores to the biggest of the big boxes, have largely made the transition to automated checkout. At first there were just a few, then more, until finally the human cashiers were vastly outnumbered.
I was a holdout, often waiting in the long lines for a human even when empty scanners were available. I must confess that it was not about my fear of technology. I was not making a social statement. To be honest, I could not figure out how to do the produce. I did not want to hold up the line while I figured out how to pay for bananas, with some seven-year-old snickering behind my back.
Then one day, at Kroger, I noticed a man scan a small tab on a banana, then on an apple and orange. Amazingly, every single piece of fruit, not just the bunches, but every single individual fruit has a bar code. I wonder if that is what all the cashiers are doing now? Sitting in a big room putting dime sized stickers on each banana without breaking them apart from the stalk?
Gradually, I made the transition. I especially liked stores that had a portable handheld scanner so you did not have to awkwardly try to scan a case of water, or get all wet trying to scan a bag of ice. I drank the Kool-Aid and now use the scanner most of the time, proudly blending in with the college kids.
Still, it was a shock to have no choice between human and machine. I got in line expecting to be out shortly. The gentleman ahead of me was apparently planning a healthy meal. However, he could not figure out how to scan the little code on the vegetables. Unfortunately, he had about seven different kinds of vegetables and had to manually enter the codes for each vegetable group. His six pack of beer scanned just fine.
Just as I realized my frozen pizza was half thawed, the intercom announced that a real person was now at the register at customer service. Just my luck. Oh well, it had to happen sometime.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org