Friday, August 12, 2011

Hey! I'm doing it! I'm doing it! BY MYSELF

I used the self service check out at Walmart for the first time last week. I had so much fun I did it again today! Yay! I would never have thought that something so seemingly trivial can be such an adventure :)

Self service check out? Where I’m from in South Africa I wouldn’t dream of doing that. I imagine millions or even thousands of rands worth of losses due to theft. (As if dishonesty isn’t a big enough problem as it is.)

My instinctive first thought was, “How do they know that people are honest and in fact ringing up all the items that they want to buy?” Then I realized last week that they have an overseeing counter (if you will) supervising four check out points each (two-two in a row together), and if the computer’s voice is turned up loud enough then maybe in the event of something happening a number of other customers will hear that something is not quite kosher.

For those who don’t know this is how it works:

You can line your items up on the conveyor belt (to the lady’s left). Then you press the Start button on the touch screen computer. The lady voice greets you and tells you to scan your first item. You then proceed to scan your item’s bar code just like they do in most stores in South Africa and it makes a beeping sound when it recognizes it, after which it appears on your screen with the total cost for that item. Obviously, if the bar code was not successfully scanned it does nothing and you either try again (and again…) or you can select the option to type in the barcode or select the item from an alphabetical list. The latter option is usually used for the fruit and vegetables. For those without a barcode – those that are sold on weight – the scanning area is a scale at the same time. For those you have to choose the fruit or vegetable from the alphabet list and then the computer either tells you to put it on the scale if it needs to be weighed and calculated, or it will ask you to type in the quantity and calculate it with the unit cost.

Once you’ve scanned (or registered) your item in the computer it is programmed to expect you to put your item in a bag – the two white plates to the lady’s right. These work with a sensor based on the weight of an item. If you don’t put it on there it will tell you to please put your item on the bagging area. It will tell you that repeatedly to the point where you can’t continue without the supervisor’s access code and assistance if you don’t manage to satisfy the computer. There is also an option to select that you don’t want to bag a particular item, e.g. maybe a bag of potatoes or the gallon bottles of water, or something from the hardware section, etc.

I learned a new trick today. If the item is too light to register the weight on the bagging plate it will continuously prompt you in the same way even if the item is in the bag. In this case I press on the plate when I put the item in the bag so that the computer will register the movement. That way we move along much more swiftly.

It is a little embarrassing when the supervisor comes running over to your till continuously to assist you. Last week she eventually just remained standing two steps behind me so that she could intervene whenever I seemed to be in distress. This week I was only assisted once, and I’m not even sure what she was solving, but anyway…

Then, when you’re done scanning, weighing and bagging all your items you select Finish and Pay, select your method of payment and follow the appropriate prompts accordingly. Vuala!!

Then, of course, you have to walk past the supervisor with your goodies no matter which way you leave the store. I’m sure they keep an eye out for any clowns trying to pull a fast one.

I had about the same number of items today than last week but I might have only taken about half the time to ring it up compared to my first attempt!

It gives me a bit of a new appreciation for the check out chappies, but at the same time I feel like I’m learning a new skill and empowering myself – on foreign soil “nogal” (*in a strange country of all places – not somewhere familiar to me where it might have been easier).

When it is your first attempt it can feel a little like stage fright, as if all eyes seem to watch you fumble about. I just smile quietly by myself (at this stage anyway) and think how grateful I am that I don’t have to ring up anyone else’s goodies. They may have to consider a manicure or a foot massage at the beauty parlor (located just beyond the tills in the Walmart) if they had to wait for me to wade through a full shopping cart of items. Then again, I’m sure that thought has crossed the mind of a few of those who’ve waited behind me in the line.

I haven’t been too inconsiderate though: I’ve told them they’ll be waiting for a while. It’s my first time at it. Some have turned and walked away to find another “fast lane” while others have smiled and just stood patiently watching me. Hey, at least they couldn’t say they weren’t warned.

I feel pretty chuffed as I walk off with my trolley of goodies, smiling broadly to the supervisor. “One of these days I won’t need your assistance, old chap! Have a nice day!” :D

Will this ever take over the market place? I’ve had this discussion with a few people. Some choose not to use it as they say it reduces job opportunities. Others think it is convenient but only if you have maybe less than 10 items. Others are simply too lazy to do it themselves if someone else can do it and get paid for it. Others are of the opinion that replacing people with computers certainly is cheaper and might very well be the trend of business towards greater profit in the future. Then again… if fewer people are earning money, won’t fewer be spending it too? Hey, I could be right, I could be wrong but that's just me... What do you think?


  1. I have a love/hate relationship with the self service machines. There's the novelty factor, and the fact that I can move at my own pace and don't have to put a smile on and make pointless chit-chat to the check-out person. It's pretty cool.

    On the other hand the voice that comes out of the computer is really annoying: "Please place the item in the bagging area." might as well say: "Put the effin item in the bagging area right now or I'll call security, buddy!"

    On the whole I quite like them, but have you noticed there's never enough room for all your shopping once you've scanned it?

  2. I know completely what you mean, Dave! I have to say the particular phrase you quoted is indeed the one that I've heard the most so far. At moments I've been wanting to tell her, "shut the hell up! You're embarrassing me!" haha

    The first time there was not enough room - you're so right! I looked around and wondered where I was supposed to put it... The 2nd time round I was clever. I commandeered a 2nd trolley, unpacked the one, scanned, bagged and packed the 2nd trolley! Maybe you'll try that next time, yes? ;) Otherwise you can line up the wife and kids and hook the parcels on them like a coat and hat rack :D

  3. Yeah, supermarkets with the self checkouts go by the honor system. Unfortunately, they don't do it for employees =(

  4. Hi Paul. Thank you for dropping by and sharing your thought :)

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by the second part of your comment: Do you mean that supermarkets don't trust their employees to be honest (and perhaps treat them such that make them feel like crooks)?

  5. Agree with you, Cin. Maybe it is a cultural thing as well; the way people are taught to think. The clerk at the store told me that even though there's chain stores they still do things slightly different one to another. He found that very interesting. I'll get to have a glimpse when we travel to other states of the US.