When I was in a department store recently, an associate motioned for me to go to a register where a single customer was finishing a transaction. But then the cashier announced he was having trouble and was going to need to repeat the checkout for that customer.

The first associate then suggested I go to the self-checkout.

Now, I am normally a very polite person, but I know I pulled a face. “No,” I said firmly.

I am opposed to the self-checkout on philosophical, sociological and practical grounds.

When I’m out in the world, I prefer interacting with human beings. I spend enough time on my devices at home and work.

Practically speaking, I have a job and a home to take care of. I don’t want to have to tally up and bag my own purchases.

Finally, I don’t like the direction our society is taking with all this self-checkout nonsense.

The associate swiftly went to a nearby register and opened it up. “Some people love the self-checkout,” she said. “Others hate them.”

“They replace people,” I said. “I don’t like that.”

“Yes,” she said, with an air of resignation. “We’ll all be robots soon.”

I’ll admit that when self-checkouts first appeared in grocery stores — maybe in the early 2000s? — I was receptive to them. I thought they were handy when I only had a few items. But I seemed to constantly run into problems with them. Sometimes I couldn’t get the machine to find the exact type of produce I was buying. If I selected the wrong item, I then had to press the alert button and wait for an employee to come and reset the screen.

Once, the machine took offense at the bag I’d brought to tote my purchases. It kept telling me to move it. I ended up holding it awkwardly as I filled it, but the machine didn’t like that either.  That was the final straw. I was done with the self-checkout.

I didn’t give them much thought until my local supermarket dismantled the customer service area. A bunch of new self-checkouts were installed in its place, and a customer-service area was attached to an express checkout.

The horror! Although there was a designated “window”at the express checkout to transact customer-service business, it was obvious that the redesign was intended to reduce staff. How often would there be two employees at this desk — one handling customer service and the other checking out customers?

The answer would soon reveal itself to be almost never. So it was that I found myself this summer at another store in the chain, with an item to return. I had to stand in line behind three paying customers, one of whom had to run his card through the reader eight times. I am not exaggerating. I thought I was going to burst a vein, I was so frustrated.

Now screens are popping up in restaurants, for ordering and payment. I am not averse to technology. I’m a librarian and use technology in every aspect of my work, from checking out books to researching. But when I go into a casual eatery, I just want to tell the staffer what I want to eat. I do not want to have to squint at a screen and scroll to find my entree.

As I stood in line waiting for a human at a restaurant the other day, I almost reconsidered when the two women in front of me  hemmed and hawed over their selections. I held my ground, and later noticed that someone who was using the touch screen at the same time I was ordering from a real person was still at it after I had finished and paid.

I don’t blame businesses entirely for going in this direction. Some people, as the department store associate said, apparently adore the self-serve options. Perhaps they think they are quicker. More likely, they don’t want to have to chitchat with the person at the register.

That’s a disturbing trend. As an educator, I know that many young people have difficulties with face-to-face social interactions. They need more practice, not less.

I’ve heard the argument that machines allow people to do more interesting and fulfilling work. I’ve yet to see the evidence.

We do thrive when we interact positively with others. In a boutique last month, I tried on a skirt. One staff member said, “If you need another size, just let me know.” Another came by a few minutes later and asked how I was doing.

I was wearing a blouse that featured a motif of pink cheetahs and they both complimented me on it. Then, when I checked out, the woman at the register reminisced about a book she had read to her children, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea.”

I felt like royalty. I bought the skirt. Take that, loathsome machines.

 

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected].


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