I’m sorry, but I don’t work here

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Have you ever had occasion to wonder why we don’t get paid to use self-checkout machines? I mean, we’re doing a cashier’s job, right? This is a common argument that I hear about self-checkouts, but when you really think it through, this argument doesn’t hold much weight in the grand scope of human history.

Decades ago, I can only imagine how many people complained when elevators became self-serve. After all, that was an elevator operator’s job. And what about telephones? All of those hard-working operators who put calls through to the correct telephone exchanges, using switchboards with utter grace and skill. Surely when people began having to memorize longer numbers and complete calls themselves, phone bills went down to compensate them for doing the operator’s job. Right? Well I certainly wasn’t there, but my guess is “no”. The same can be said for advances in how we do our banking, how we fill up at the gas station, and any number of other common life tasks in which jobs were eliminated by automation to save money for businesses. Self-checkout machines are just the next phase, and decades from now, they will dominate retail stores without anyone giving them a second thought.

Personally, I prefer to interact with an actual human when making a purchase. For years, I refused to go near self-checkout machines in support of workers. Then came the point when self-checkout machines started being installed in the dozens in big box stores, while often a single checkout line would be available for those wishing to use the services of a cashier. The strength of our moral convictions can apparently be measured by the degree to which we are willing to be inconvenienced by them, and in my case, that threshold was reached the day a self-checkout allowed me to leave a store in three minutes, rather than 30.

Being a social person, I will always prefer the cashier experience, but I can adapt. The world changes every day, and sometimes it simply doesn’t pay to crusade against everything we dislike. At least this was my thinking before one particularly bad self-checkout experience a few months ago.

After forgetting to buy a few grocery items at one store, I happened to be passing by another large local grocery store that happened to have self-checkout terminals. I stopped in and picked up the few items I had forgotten, and was in one of those dreaded situations where the line up to visit a cashier seemed to be a mile long, while all of the self-checkout machines were empty. Being in a hurry, I decided to be “that guy”, and check myself out. This particular self-checkout machine judged me before I even pressed any buttons. Presumably pre-programmed with the exact weight of every individual grocery item, it was fitted with a scale in the bagging area to weigh each item after scanning. The logic? This machine will be sure to catch you if you try to sneak an item into the bagging area without scanning it. Silly me for not placing the item in the exact right spot. I got yelled at by a robot. Machine 1, Brandon 0. It didn’t defeat me in some quest to steal groceries; it defeated me in keeping my dignity. I am not a thief. Next, my 11-year-old, who was with me and always likes to help, attempted to begin bagging the first couple of items while I was scanning the rest. Big mistake. This messed with the scale weight, and we needed to get a supervisor’s help clearing the error code. It would appear that she needed to check to be sure that we weren’t stealing the juice boxes that I had, in fact, scanned. Darn, and here I thought I had found the location for the perfect crime. Machine 2, Brandon 0. We accidentally displeased the scale two more times, and the supervisor had to come back each time. She attempted to explain to my 11-year-old that the sensor works just like the ones at traffic lights that switch the signal only when there is a car. Fortunately for fellow road users, my 11-year-old doesn’t drive, so he had no idea what she was talking about. Machine 3, Brandon 0.

By the time we finally got out of that situation, I felt like an absolute crook. Forget the old mantra “the customer is always right”. In the case of these judgmental, finicky self-checkout machines, the customer is wrong before they even arrive. A few stores I have been to with self-checkouts employ people to stand at the exit and check the receipts of those who have used them. It is hard not to simply blurt out, “I’m sorry, but I don’t work here, so either trust me, or hire cashiers!” In fact, readers may not realize that if you are sure you scanned and paid for every single item in your cart, those items are your property, and no store employee has the authority to prevent you from exiting the store with your property. Life hack – skip the insulting thief-catching checkpoint, and leave with your stuff.

In a world where annoying, distrustful self-checkout machines are sure to soon dominate the retail industry, let us all hope that at the very least, store owners come to realize that the overwhelming majority of people are honest, and that any small thefts that do occur at self-checkouts should be well-balanced by the savings on cashier wages. Besides, with the way things are going, it is only a matter of time before we have to stock the shelves, too.

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