Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I spent most of my three weeks in the northern Virginia area, and noticed two major changes since December of 2005: (1) traffic sucks even worse despite the various construction projects (Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the Mixing Bowl), and (2) there are self-service checkout counters at the local groceries.

I'm still trying to figure (2) out. Self-checkout sounds like a good idea at first, because it obviously gives you, the shopper, more positive control over what you're doing. From the boss's standpoint as well, it's a boon because you need fewer cashiers to do the work. But the major problem seems to be that Joe and Jane Shopper aren't always going to be competent cashiers. There's a significant likelihood that they might hold up the line as they struggle to ring their items up. There's also the question of how honorable these shoppers will be: what mechanism is in place to stop someone from shoplifting by simply neglecting to ring an item up? For that matter, what mechanisms are in place to distinguish unscrupulous shoppers from those who simply make a mistake?

To be fair, I tried the process on one occasion and got the hang of it within seconds, which seems to mean that you don't need a genius IQ to learn how to run items over a scanner. But I have to admit I was lucky: all my items scanned perfectly, and that's not always going to be the case. I also had very few items to scan, and was at the store during a low-traffic time of day. How would things have gone had I had 50 items in my cart and ten huffy people in line behind me?

Anyway, a lot has changed in my absence, but traffic and self-checkout are what truly caught my eye this time around.



  1. Regarding (2), back in the 1980s when ATMs were coming into use, folks said the same thing about the ATM/bank teller scenario.

    However, regarding the possibility of John or Jane Public holding up a line due to some kind of error, I can say I've been in plenty of lines which were held up and a cashier was ringing up the order.

    I find these self-check out things, when they work, to be only marginally quicker. They're great if you need only one or two items, for a grocery store hit and run.

  2. In the UK self-checkout is onlyto be used like an express counter ie. with a basket of about a dozen items. Sometimes the computer will accuse you of stealing by saying "unrecognised item in the bagging area" so there are some kind of safety mechanisms in place. I noticed when I went to Homeplus the other day that they also have self-checkout there (maybe introduced by Tesco its UK JV partner) so you can go and practice some more if you want.

    Self-check out is also good for avoiding queues at the petrol station and I used to avoid petrol stations that weren't equipped for it.



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