Most afternoons - after stepping off the bus but before heading for home - I stop at the big supermarket on the town square to pick up some bits and pieces for dinner and, because I haven’t had quite enough yet of patronising voices or technology that will not do as it is told, I inevitably use the self checkout machines. I remember when they used to be a new and exciting phenomenon but now they are everywhere with their shiny promise of quick, easy service without having to talk to anyone or feel judged about your purchases (why they didn’t think to install them in chemists much earlier I have no idea).
The irony is that the self-checkout machines never save any time. Almost without exception they go wrong and need to be reset by an employee for any of a variety of reasons. Either the machine thinks you’ve put something in your carrier bag when you haven’t, or thinks you’ve not put something in your carrier bag when you have, or doesn’t recognise an item or just decides it doesn’t want to play, a feeling I will have experienced myself only an hour or so previously. And woe betide you if you use your own bags, because that seems to send the machine into an enormous flap. The worst thing is hearing them unable to cope; maybe I’m anthropomorphising the machines, but there’s something very sad about them saying over and over again, in that well-modulated, neutral, helpful female voice that there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area, never losing their temper, never having a Plan B, never being able to move on.
They are the best possible example of how far we are from artificial intelligence, because they’ve been around for a few years now and they still don’t seem to expect anything to appear in the bagging area, whether it’s your own shopping, your own bag, an onion, a watermelon or (presumably) a rhinoceros. Even I, with my slow and painful journey of self-discovery, have been better at adjusting my expectations than that. And yet the machines never learn. I wonder sometimes if it is a vision of hell, all the quick check machines chatting to one another over and over again, repeating their stock phrases: Please insert your card into the chip and PIN device. Do you need cashback? Thank you for shopping at Marks and Spencer. Please insert your card into the chip and PIN device - a cacophony of pleasant meaninglessness, for ever.
I wonder why I use the machines, given the frustration and delay they inject into what should be a joyous time, namely hometime. I think it’s part of an increasing trend against talking to anyone. At work I would sooner email somebody, or send them an instant message, even if I like them. If my mobile buzzes with an incoming call I take a good hard look before deciding whether to answer or let it go to voicemail. I recently arranged a sight test and contact lens trial with my optician, where I’ve been a customer for many years, by email and it took four days and several messages to sort out what would have been a three minute phone call. And yet if you asked me, I’d say I like people and that I’m interested in them. What is wrong with me?
Some of the people on the checkout don’t help. A few weeks back, with a more sizeable load of shopping, I stood there waiting to be served while the woman at the till talked to the woman behind me in the queue – a fellow employee of the supermarket – about how badly she’d been treated by management. She was a swarthy, squat woman with a facial expression that suggested she thought she was an awful lot better than the life she had ended up having. I stood there, not entirely sure where to look, while I heard chapter and verse about her disciplinary record, how she had been pulled up for having a bad attitude, how she hadn’t wanted to sign up for extra shifts and how she’d been criticised for not pulling her weight. All this took place instead of swiping my shopping, something it seems was lower down on her priorities than venting about what a rough deal she’d had. When she handed me my receipt at the end she gave me a queasy smile because she realised I’d been listening. Please don’t tell, it said, and I wondered whether the self-checkout machines weren’t preferable after all.
The other big deterrent is the self-checkout martinet who stands by the machines at all time. Another store employee, her job is to move people forward to the next vacant machine, like a traffic policeman. She is a little, humourless Asian lady with huge plastic-framed spectacles who acts as if every time she has to utter a complete sentence someone in Payroll docks an amount from her salary. It is ridiculous that she is even needed to do that role, but she appears to be just the jobsworth for it; she barks, she waves, she ushers. She even seems to look on as you scan the barcodes on your groceries – not because she’s there to help if the machine plays up (another colleague seems to have to step in to do that) but to chivvy you along if you’re taking too long. Efficiency savings, after all, are important.
Today, with a full trolley of stuff to pay for, I found myself in the queue for the tills and there were only two people working on them. One I had never seen before and the other was the self-checkout martinet. Please don’t let me get her I thought, as I watched people in front of me step forward and go to one till or the other. She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me. When I got to the front, my luck had run out.
She loves me not.
She scanned my goods in relative silence, except for the regulation “Do you need a bag?” at the start (I didn’t). She didn’t ask if I needed any help packing. At the end of the transaction I inserted my card into the chip and PIN device, not prompted by a mellifluous robot voice, and punched in the digits. Then she spoke.
“You bought brown rice. Have you cooked it before?”
Even the second sentence had such a flat intonation that it sounded like a command rather than a question. It was the most I had ever heard her say.
“Yes, I have.”
“It takes a lot longer than long grain rice.” she added.
“Yes, it does a bit.”
“It takes almost twice as long as the long grain rice. A very long time!” she said, and it looked like she was almost smiling.
“No, it doesn’t take that long, it must be about ten minutes more, tops.”
“But it is very nice, isn’t it?”
“Yes, definitely. I’m planning to make a salad with it. It’s lovely in salad.”
She handed me my receipt.
“Have a good rest of your day.” I said.
It was only the tiniest connection, the briefest flicker, yet it was something you could never get from a million self-checkout machines in a million years. It kept me warm all afternoon.
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