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Tuesday, August 17, 2010


It’s coming to your local grocery or drug store and it cannot be stopped. It has already “invaded” much of the world and has created quite a sensation. “It” in this case is the self-check out automated machine. It doesn’t talk; it has no personality; it doesn’t smile or bag your goods. It’s a computer and it is made of heartless steel or aluminum.

Invented by Dr. Henry Schneider in the 1980s, the first machines (called “robots”) were installed in a store in Clifton Park, New York.

The chief job of the “robot” is to get rid of your friendly neighborhood cashier named “Joe” or “Mary” who might ask you if you’re daughter’s expecting or how your day is going. The robot wants you to do Joe or Mary’s cashiering job-- scan, pay and bag-- without getting paid for it, as if you didn’t have enough to do at the end of the day.

The robot communicates via a series of beeps, error messages, or a machine like voice that often turns into a screeching garble. Like all computers, it sometimes acts up. If it freezes as you are scanning the barcodes on a box of oatmeal, you’re left with a line of impatient shoppers giving you the evil eye. The inevitable wait for a real human being to come to your assistance—if indeed, there are any to be found—will also create tension because the people behind you want you to hurry up. But nobody can hurry a frozen computer. Of course, the human being who eventually comes to your aid may once have been a cashier whose job was eliminated because of the robot. He or she may be biding their time until the public gets the hang of self checkout, at which point “the corporation” will hand them their pink slip.

Ordinarily it takes one attendant to run 4 to 6 self checkout lanes at one time. That’s a lot of eliminated cashier jobs no matter how you look at it.

For those of us who remember the days when you could pull up in a Pennsylvania gas station and have an attendant pump your gas, check the oil and even wash your windshield, the robots are just one more impersonal checkpoint in the continuing decline of western civilization.
While the robot has its fans—usually people who don’t want any human interaction at all, like the folks who walk about the city wired up 24/7 in earphones -- many others are coming to believe that self checkout is the scourge of supermarkets and stores.

For starters, self checkout means the elimination of millions of cashier jobs, despite the bogus public relations pleas to the contrary that it will make life easier for the consumer. The real beneficiary is the corporation because it stands to save money thanks to all the pink slips self checkout generates.

Unfortunately, many Philadelphia area drug stores are beginning to implement self checkout. In Center City, the CVS store at 15th and Spruce put in three or four self check out machines. During a recent visit to this store I found that only a minority of customers there were scanning and bagging, while most people were waiting in conventional check out lines. I must say that the sight of the unused self checkout lanes warmed my heart. It was especially gratifying to see shoppers happily engaged in saying “hello” or “thank you” to a human being who bagged their items. It occurred to me that perhaps store management was sitting behind a one way window wringing their hands over the public’s rejection of self checkout.

In our own area, a number of self checkout robots were installed in a CVS on Aramingo Avenue. Just as in the Center City store, during a recent visit there I found that a majority of customers were avoiding doing their own scanning and bagging but instead were lining up to check out the human interaction way. Meanwhile, the local Rite Aide stores have—smartly-- not installed any self checkout robots to date.

Consumers have the power to turn the tide and save jobs if they just avoid the self checkout option completely. Boycott the robot; go to a human being. If we do this, management may get the message that firing human beings for impersonal machines just isn’t the way to go.

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