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Idiot Or Thief? April 24, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
Tags: , ,

I love shopping in a store and being accused of being both stupid and a thief.  What better way to win my long-term loyalty?

It all started back in 1973.  A nearby grocery store had installed a high-tech checkout system that used new-fangled “bar codes” to scan items at checkout, eliminating the hand-keying of prices into the cash register.  Well, what could be better?  As bacon is to all foods, lasers are to all technology.  There is no device that does not get better by adding a laser in some fashion.  And these checkout systems had visible lasers, flickering across the products, ready to blind or maim at a moment’s notice!  Dangerous technology, bent to the will of man!

Over the years, scanners replaced cash registers, until they were pervasive in every shopping experience.  But the technology was off-limits to all but a select few: the highly trained cadre of cashiers who were granted access to the mysterious machines.  Only they knew how to hold the products just so, and move them at the right speed, to get a good scan each and every time.  Mere mortals stood back in awe as these artists worked their magic with cans, boxes, and even plastic bags.

The desire to use the machine and scan something was overpowering.  Alas, my career choice precluded being a cashier, so I tried to manage my impulses.  A rare encounter with a cashier that would let you scan something was like a brief glimpse into another world.  It felt so good!

Imagine my excitement when my local grocery installed self-checkout machines.  I could be my own cashier, scanning all by myself!  This was heady stuff, and I was quick to use those lanes whenever possible.

The fun was cut short when I found that the machine assumes that I am both an idiot and a thief.  As you scan each item, the system tells you to place it in the bagging area.  If it doesn’t arrive in the bagging area in quickly enough, the system repeats the command and then locks up, awaiting intervention from the system manager.  After the manager unlocks the system from their console, I can then move on to the next item.

As to the idiot assumption: where do they think I am going to put the item?  Throw it to the floor? Back in my basket?  Juggle it?  I know to put it in the bag.  Why would you tell me this for each and every item I am buying?  Thanks for assuming that a typical adult has no idea how the purchasing process works.

And a thief? Apparently, these machines are built with scales in the bagging area, and some poor soul has entered the weight of every conceivable item you might buy.  As you scan an item, the system is carefully checking to see if what you bought is correctly placed into a bag.  If that weight is not registered in the bag, the system assumes you have not bagged it and must therefore be committing some sort of fraud.  Did you scan one item but bag two?  Scan a cheap item but bag something far more expensive?

The reality is that the scales on these machines are not that great, so that bagging errors happen all the time.  Set an item down too hard or too gently, and it is misread.  Jostle the scale or try to shift things in the bag, and you upset the system.  Most items weigh so little that they cannot possibly register accurately every time.  Yet the assumption is that the system is right, you are wrong, and some shenanigans are going on in aisle seven.

Let me clarify something for my local grocer: my long-term retirement plan does not involve skimming extra candy bars and razor blades for potential resale on eBay.  I am not out to rob you; I just want to quickly check out while experiencing the vicarious thrill of using a laser to do so.  I understand that certain miscreants might uses lasers for nefarious purposes, but that usually involves sharks.  I am honest, long-term customer that wants to be treated that way.  For goodness sake, I scanned my frequent shopper card when I started; if there was some sort of problem, you know whre I live!

Once again, companies are usnig technology with the best of intentions but ending up alienating and irritating customers.  We preach about trust and relationship with customers, but that seems to only go one way.  Our systems assume there is no trust or relationship, and customers are quick to perceive that.  We need to live the customer experience more often and translate our feelings into the systems we design.  Then we can start building trust and earning a relationship with our customers.


1. Marc Sirkin - April 24, 2009

If I were the store manager, not only would I expect to see you juggling it, I’d prefer it.

One of my first jobs out of college was as an assistant manager for a video store (remember those!). I was given responsibility to count the cash, deposit it and lock up the multi-millions of dollars worth of video tapes inside twice a week.

As an employee benefit, we were allowed to take out 1 movie on nights that we closed but it had to be returned before the next day started (yea, I know). I took one home one night after closing and didn’t bring it back the next morning. I got reamed out for being irresponsible. To which, I asked, if I’m so irresponsible, then why do you let me carry all your cash out the back door every night and have the keys to your store?

I wonder if that guy still is in business?

Trust goes both ways and is applicable both for employees and customers I think (hope).

Nice friday post 🙂

2. Vickki - April 24, 2009

I usually try and avoid those self checkout machines for that exact same reason. Inevitably I do something that the scanner doesn’t like and then I have to have a clerk come and reset the machine… the bad part about that is that I live near a grocery store that shall remain nameless (but is named the same thing as our favorite home improvement store).

At this store, service is a luxury that most people don’t get. So, the other day when I was there and only the self checkout stands were open, I had to wait 10 minutes for someone to come help me (and ended up having to wander the store to even find someone to come help me) because my sweet potato rolled out of the bag and onto the scanner and it didn’t like that.

Technology is wonderful, but if it’s not backed by the support it should be, it ends up costing more in the end.

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