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The Secret of Safeway's Self-Checkout

Beware of bossy machines and shrewd cashiers.

Shopping at during rush hour can be as stressful as trying to program a DVR player. After selecting my grocery items, I stand in a lane, five customers deep, filled with overloaded carts moving at a pace slower than a chess game. I notice a few brave souls with small orders using self-checkout.

For those whose haven’t been paying attention, the self-checkout is an automated register located near aisle one. The customer scans, bags and pays for the purchases without the help of a cashier. Sounds easy enough but don’t let that fool you. Self-checkout machines can be bossy.

I eye the machine with the trepidation of a kid receiving a flu vaccine. “Don’t do it. Remember the last time,” says that little voice inside my head. I had selected Spanish instead of English and ended up in a system loop, “Llame al attendant.” I abandoned the items on the scanner and left the store.     

But today I have lots of motivation, faster and shorter lines. I refuse to be intimidated again.

I weave through other shoppers to reach self-checkout. One cashier provides assistance for six machines. With shrewd, beady eyes and painted-on pants, she acts like a periscope on a submarine, constantly scanning and waiting for the slightest customer infraction. 

I step up to the self-checkout machine. A computer-animated voice demands me to follow the directions on the screen. First, I select English not Spanish. Next, the annoying voice says, “Scan your item. Place in shopping bag.” This goes smoothly until I try to scan a bag of carrots, no bar code.

Oh God, now what? 

The attendant senses my confusion and saunters over. “Have a problem?” she asks.

“Yeah, how do I scan vegetables?”

Mocking me with its simplicity, she places the carrots on the scale, enters her secret pin number, pushes four buttons, smirks and walks away. 

It is more difficult to repeat the process without her by my side. Placing apples on the scale, I push the “No Barcode” icon and then “A” on the display screen for apples. Forty separate icons appear. Mackintosh, Granny Smith, McIntosh, Red Delicious, the list drones on. Since the tiny label fell off the apple, I panic and push any button. My face turns beet red and lips quiver.

Okay, just relax. 

My items overflow the bagging area and I sling them into the cart. The register shuts down with an error message, “See attendant.” 

The computer system alerts the cashier, she marches over, fixes the machine and reminds me, “You must leave the bags in the bagging area until you are finished or the machine thinks you are stealing.”

If I knew so much, I’d be working here!

By this point, crowds pile up behind me as angry as the fans at an Oakland Raiders game. Hyperventilating, I try my last item, a birthday card. I run it over the scanner and slide it into the bagging area. 

The creepy computer voice reminds me, “Place item in bagging area.”

What the hell?

I catch the attention of the attendant for the final time. She drags herself over, letting me know with the shake of her head that I am beyond help.

“The card is too light-weight.  The machine doesn’t know if you put it in the bagging area.”

She enters her secret pin number, pushes a button and walks away.

Finalizing my purchases, I scan my club card, enter the Visa, take the receipt, grab the last bag and leave the store in humiliation. Didn’t even attempt to use a coupon. 

You’ve been warned.

Have you used the self checkout? Are you a fan? Not at all? Tell us in the comments!

David H. Perez July 02, 2012 at 06:06 PM
But the fact remains, Martha, that self-service is a job killer, and with the high unemployment rate in Watsonville, we should be supporting workers, not machines and corporate profit. I am always happy to stand in line longer, even if I only have 1 item, to show my solidarity with human workers, not machines. I also shop at Nob Hill and have gotten to know the checkers, baggers and managers over the years, and I would rather be greeted by their smiles than a robotic voice at self checkout. But I also shop at Safeway from time to time, and I have had good experience with their customer service. In fact, sometimes it is too good, and on one shopping trip I will often be asked by a half dozen different employees if I am finding everything OK. It's nice that they ask, but after 6 times it gets annoying and I begin to run and hide when I see another employee coming my way. But when I can't find an item, a Safeway employee has always been willing to drop what they are doing and escort me across the store to show me the specific location of the item on the shelf.
Martha P Quintana July 02, 2012 at 06:45 PM
HI David Perez: Oh! yes I totally agree with you on keeping jobs. I was referring just to the ease of use on the machines but I 99% of the time go through the lines and would rather have an exchange with a live person. It is the same way I feel about automated phone service that drives me crazy that you cannot talk to a human being. So much of our technology advancement is taking away jobs which is so sad.
Jennifer Squires July 02, 2012 at 08:24 PM
There are moments I like the self-checkout, a bunch of these comments are spot-on: it can be tough to do and it's nice to support someone's employment.
David H. Perez July 03, 2012 at 03:30 AM
Yes, Jennifer, the expediency of self checkout can be seductive, but I come from the generation where it is more than just about "me", if that is even conceivable now. We had causes beyond ourselves that we stood for back in the 1960's and 1970's. Now, young people seem to base their choices on what works for them in the moment and what is within the scope of their apps, and what requires the least real human communication. Martha is so on-point about automated phone service. I think technology has a lot to offer, but if we abandon the human touch and eliminate the need for jobs, who will be left to buy all of the cool high-tech gadgets?
Chris S July 07, 2012 at 03:12 AM
My credit card slipped and fell into a crevice. They could only "fish" out someone else's card, while mines was still stuck. Faulty manufacturer design - so BEWARE!!!!!

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