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Friday, December 22, 2000

Last night I went back to the Kroger's salad bar. The little ticket spitter on the scale was all out of stickers, so I couldn't get a sticker. Not thinking about this, I went to the self check stations because I REALLY wanted to try it out. I walked up, touched the screen to start, scanned my mini-pizza, and then laid my salad on the scale and pressed produce. It asked me to enter a code number. I didn't have the code number so I clicked "No Code Number." It said (and I do mean said - the thing even talks!), "Place the item on the scale and wait." In a moment (about five seconds), it came up and said "Sm. Salad - $3.99lb." and rang it up. I was completely dumbfounded. And amazed. I was trying to figure out if it had some special visual scanner or something. Anyway, I paid with my debit card, which you can get cash back from by the way, grabbed my receipt, and headed out. As I was heading out, I noticed the man sitting at the desk surrounded by the four self-check stations. I said, "This is so incredibly cool!" He agreed and asked me if I was wondering how the salad thing worked as if it were magic. I agreed that I had no idea. He said he entered it. That's why you have to stand back and wait. He gets a signal to look at a particular station and figure out the item. He enters it, the scale weighs it, and the self-check charges it. Also, you can pay with cash and get change like a normal register. The one drawback here is the same drawback we have with every Coke machine on the planet: your money has to be unfolded and relatively flat. It definitely won't work for kids with a wadded up dollar in their pocket trying to get a candy bar without anyone noticing.Other than that, I think that there's a distinct possibility that a lot of checkers may soon lose their cushy union wages and that others will be relegated to self-check station monitors. Now, admittedly, there's a lot of room for fraud here, especially with produce. If you want the organic broccoli at the regular price, just enter the right code and you get it cheaper. The same goes for other similar produce. Still, I'm not certain that will be enough to sink the concept, especially since store owners will be drooling at the reduced workforce cost. Additionally, it was so fast and easy, that it made me thrilled not to have to wait in line for the checker to check me out.

Contrast this with my experience at Wal-Mart just a little while later. I stood in the Express Line (6 items or less) behind 6 other people in the shortest line at the store at 11:00 at night. When the woman in front of me wanted to pay with a AMEX traveller's check, things completely fell apart. This clerk had never seen one of those before. So she ambled over to her manager (at such and extrodinarily slow pace that would make an eighty year old with a fractured hip look like she was hauling ass by comparison). The manager noticed that the check was unsigned. The clerk headed back over and said that it wasn't signed and she was supposed to sign it when she got it from the bank. The woman said it was a gift certificate from her office and that they didn't tell her to sign it. This confused the clerk so she went back to her supervisor. The supervisor apparently told her she'd come over in a minute. We all stood there and waited. After about six minutes, the supervisor arrived, made some protestations, then eventually said, "Well give me your name, address, and phone number and we'll call you if there's any problem (as if this would be any threat to an actual criminal!). Then the transaction proceeded. But the traveller's check was only part of the payment. She paid the rest with a credit card, which served only to confuse the lowly clerk further. After just over 20 minutes, it was my turn finally. The box I had was coming unsealed and I wanted some tape to fix it. She said, "Well, I don't have any tape." I asked if customer service might have tape. She said, "Well I don't know, but they're closed tonight." I eventually ended up going to customer service, pushing past the carts blocking the area, and finding a packing tape dispenser behind the counter. I retaped the box. By this point I was so exhausted that I no longer wanted the item I had put so much effort into purchasing, mostly because my purchasing experience (the checkout) was so miserable. I wonder how much business stores lose every day to people walking out due to long lines? I know I certainly have done it on more than one occasion, especially at Target.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the future of electronic checkout. My first experience with it exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. Incidentally, Kroger is a huge corporation. For Californians, they also own Foods Co., Food 4 Less, Cala Foods/Bell Markets, and Ralph's.

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