The grocery store at which I shop for weekly provisions has recently made some changes. They’ve removed several registers and replaced them with four self-checkout kiosks where shoppers may scan, bag and pay for their purchases without any cashier intervention. While this offers a small degree of anonymity to husbands who are forced by their wives to sheepishly purchase feminine hygiene products from that aisle that smells vaguely of cardboard and baby powder, it has offered its share of problems.
This particular store has chosen to call these four kiosks the “Speed Zone,” proving that even large, chain grocery stores are masters of irony.
First, there are no rules regarding how we shoppers are supposed to line up. As a result, we form a compact mass, like grains of sand in an hour glass, jostling to be the next to fall through. The fact that this area is called the “Speed Zone” creates certain expectations of speed that supersede civility, and turns us into a throng of Third World peasants swarming a flatbed truck full of U.N.I.C.E.F. rice. But making it to one of the kiosks is just the beginning.
Next, you have to negotiate what appears to be a M.R.I. machine with no more training than your current education. As a person who hesitates to program his automatic coffee machine because he’s afraid he’ll end up heating an empty carafe and burning down his house at 3:00am, this is a daunting task to say the least. Never mind that there’s an impatient mob jutting their hips and clucking their tongues while watching me fail.
A word of advice: NEVER attempt to use one of these kiosks if you plan to purchase produce. The “H.A.L. Foods 9000 Computer” needs to know whether that onion is White, Spanish or Vidalia as every code is different. Stick to the highly-processed foods in the bright packaging.
And if you do screw something up (and you will), there is a light at the top of a long pole that turns red. It not only informs an attendant that you’re an idiot, it signals to the grumbling mass behind you that their wait has just been extended.
You’d think that one time through would make me more sympathetic to the people ahead of me the next time, but it doesn’t. Instead I’m like a recent immigrant who, one day after taking the naturalization exam, calls a talk radio station and screams in pigeon English that we should close the ports at Ellis Island. I, too, have cast stones from the crowd as a confused 70-year-old lady attempted to check out by holding each item up to the LCD screen, even going so far as to turn the box to show the product name to the lady inside the computer.
So, to every person who has ever worked at a grocery store register: If I have ever audibly sighed while you called for a price check, if I have ever scowled while you had to manually key in a U.P.C., if I have ever cast aspersions on your vocation, chosen or not, I apologize. With all my heart, I am sorry. Please come back; like John Conner, only you have the power to destroy the robots.