Friday, November 23, 2007

New. Improved?

Stop & Shop has recently installed a "self-scanning" system in most of its Cape Cod stores and probably elsewhere. Not the self-check out, which has been in place for years now, so we consumers are used to the idea of doing stuff for ourselves. This is the next step in fully automated, employee-free shopping: a scan-and-bag-as-you-go, pay-at-the-end system. No humans required.

Here's how it works, in theory: You enter the store, get a cart, scan your card at the stand, pick up a handheld scanner and some bags. Proceed through the store, scanning items as you put them in the bags. Done shopping? Head right to a self checkout, scan an "end of order" barcode posted there, scan your card again, pay the total, return the scanner, and scram, smiling at the time you saved bagging as you shopped, while the rest of the poor consumer schmoes shopped the conventional way and are now stuck staring blankly at the latest cover photos of Brangelina while they wait for a cashier to become available.

Here's how it works, in reality: You enter the store, get a cart, stop just inside the door with said cart while you get out your card. Wait for people ahead of you to pick up their scanners. Scan your card at the kiosk. It doesn't work. Try again. It doesn't work. Try again. It works. Pick up a handheld scanner. Get bags. Empty plastic bags don't stay open in the cart, so you use paper. Open up a few paper bags in the cart. Head to produce section for squash. Select a lovely squash, grown, oddly, without a bar code. How to scan it? Park squash in top of the cart (getting crowded up there with a scanner and a child and a squash), because you don't want to bag it till you've scanned it. Look around for a scale. Find one on the opposite side of the produce section. It doesn't work. Find one that works. Someone is using it. Wait till they're done. Put squash on scale, and key in the PLU code... um, there's no sticker on the squash. Look up the code on the handy chart over the scale... is it under b for butternut, or s for squash? Key in the code. Print out a bar code. Scan the bar code. Put squash in bag. Repeat for every item of produce you need. (I did learn to select all my produce first, pile it on top of the protesting child, then go to the scale to print labels all at once, but still, the idea that this is a timesaver? is just silly.) Proceed through other aisles. When bagging cans, rearrange produce items already bagged, so they won't get squished. Midway through shopping, run out of bags. Go back to scanner stand for more. Resume shopping. When finished, head to a self-check out. Scan card. Scan end of order bar code. Hear buzzing noise. Repeat. Hear buzzing noise. Scan end of order bar code first, then card. It works. Pay the total, return scanner and unused bags, and scram, wondering 1) if you really saved any time, or if you're the schmo, and 2) if Brangelina are still the picture of family bliss.

What I like about it:
  • When I'm shopping for just a few things, and without children in tow, and using my giant flat-bottomed tote bag instead of grocery bags... under those circumstances only, it is faster.
  • The no-humans required part. More than once a well-intentioned cashier or bagger has said strange things to my children, and/or touched them. This is not OK with me. Frankly, I don't mind not dealing with store employees for that and other reasons, especially in flu season.
  • The endless variety of bar codes is kind of fascinating. Yeah, I'm reaching here.
  • It's cool to save an extra few dollars for using it, but the "incentive" period is over soon.
What I don't like about it:
  • The scanner racks are located just inside the store entrance. They need to be more out of the way so as not to create a big clog of people and carts right where it's least convenient to block the way.
  • If I misjudge how many bags I need, even by one, it's a hassle. Too many and I have to return the extras, too few and I have to come back, against traffic flow, to get more, which may be not enough again or too many, so repeat that as needed. I know the store throws away plastic bags that are unused but not untouched. The potential for waste bothers me.
  • Picking up and putting down the scanner a thousand times is a pain in the ass. You can't hold the thing all the time and have your hands free, so you pick up an item, pick up the scanner, scan, put the scanner down, put the item in the bag, instead of just picking up an item, putting it in the cart, and moving on.
  • The scanner makes a "ka-CHING!" sound at you every few minutes to advertise a product you can get for 50 cents less if you're using the scanner. I don't want anything to make a "ka-CHING!" sound at me every few minutes unless it is going to start spitting out hundred dollar bills. There is no way to turn off the "ka-CHING!" sound.
  • I shop the store systematically, end-to-end: produce first, dairy and frozen products last. But I don't want my stuff bagged in that order. If I bag as I go, I have to either rearrange things periodically, or shop for heavy products first, stuff I don't want crushed, last. But neither logic nor the store layout (coincidence, I know) dictates shopping that way. People say it doesn't make sense to load your cart, unload it to pay for things, then load it again. But packing-wise, it makes very good sense. I take things out of the cart and put them on the belt in the order I want them bagged.
  • Not my problem, I guess, but this system strikes me as a loss-prevention nightmare. I guess Stop&Shop figures they'll make up the difference in cashiers not hired.

Now, I'm the first to admit I can be reluctant to change. I don't store music on my computer. I am a text message virgin. I even still write checks to pay bills. However, I am not going to become one of those elderly grouches who complains about newfangled this n' that and how everything was better in 1952. I well know that new does sometimes mean better. DVD is way better than VHS. My Dell is way better than my PowerMac. My husband is way better than my ex-husband.

But since my shopping habits are formed -- nay, honed -- deliberately and for good reasons, I'm not eager to change them to make things more convenient for the store. Because this new system is not proving to be more convenient for me, which I'm falsely (and straight-facedly!) told is supposed to be the point.

Which brings me to my last objection: At least in some stores, the scan-it-yourself system is being rather aggressively promoted. If you express any reservations whatever about it, you are either outright pooh-poohed as behind the times, or met with affected surprise -- "really? No one else has said that" with "obviously, you are some kind of dolt" clearly implicit -- which I find insulting, both when it happens to me and when I hear it happening to other customers.

We bond, those other customers and I. We are not falling for it.

And yes, most of them are older folks... sigh.


  1. This sounds like sheer hell to me. Basically, because I am the one who will consistently select the scanner that does not work or the food that will not scan. I'm just THAT person. It is my destiny.

  2. It still confuses me. Why am I doing all that extra work that used to be done by a paid cashier and a paid bagger, but I'm not being paid for it? I don't get it.

  3. I am interested to see if self-checkouts and such really save stores any money. It seems like people could steal things with this system...even though there are video cameras everywhere. Personally, I loathe self-checkout. About all I'm willing to do is unload my cart. I remember the days when there were grocery stores that gave you a grease pen to mark the price on what you were buying...before they came out with barcodes and scanners. That didn't work so well!

  4. Never even heard about that before. I agree with SC that it seems like we are doing all the work here - for nothing?

    Also, from my experience with the self checkouts, things tend to go wrong very often, and it takes forever for the appropriate staff to rectify it. Meaning shopping, which was supposed to have become more efficient, actually ends up taking much longer...argh.


  5. Here in the hinterlands we haven't gotten this yet. I barely like self-checkout, unless I have only a few items. I laughed out loud at you stacking the produce on the protesting child. Mine would be throwing the produce in no time at all. She does that anyway, without me stacking it on her!!

    If I saved 10% on my groceries, I might like a process like this. Otherwise, they can check me out and bag me, thankyouverymuch