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The Secret of Safeway's Self-Checkout

Beware of bossy machines and shrewd cashiers.

Shopping at Safeway during rush hour can be as stressful as trying to program a DVR player. After selecting my grocery items, I stand in a lane, five customers deep, filled with overloaded carts moving at a pace slower than a chess game. I notice a few brave souls with small orders using self-checkout.

For those whose haven’t been paying attention, the self-checkout is an automated register located near aisle one. The customer scans, bags and pays for the purchases without the help of a cashier. Sounds easy enough but don’t let that fool you. Self-checkout machines can be bossy.

I eye the machine with the trepidation of a kid receiving a flu vaccine. “Don’t do it.  Remember the last time,” says that little voice inside my head. I had selected Spanish instead of English and ended up in a system loop, “Llame al attendant.” I abandoned the items on the scanner and left the store.     

But today I have lots of motivation, faster and shorter lines. I refuse to be intimidated again.

I weave through other shoppers to reach self-checkout. One cashier provides assistance for six machines. With shrewd, beady eyes and painted-on pants, she acts like a periscope on a submarine, constantly scanning and waiting for the slightest customer infraction. 

I step up to the self-checkout machine. A computer-animated voice demands me to follow the directions on the screen. First, I select English not Spanish. Next, the annoying voice says, “Scan your item. Place in shopping bag.” This goes smoothly until I try to scan a bag of carrots, no bar code.

Oh God, now what? 

The attendant senses my confusion and saunters over. “Have a problem?” she asks.

“Yeah, how do I scan vegetables?”

Mocking me with its simplicity, she places the carrots on the scale, enters her secret pin number, pushes four buttons, smirks and walks away. 

It is more difficult to repeat the process without her by my side. Placing apples on the scale, I push the “No Barcode” icon and then “A” on the display screen for apples. Forty separate icons appear. Mackintosh, Granny Smith, McIntosh, Red Delicious, the list drones on. Since the tiny label fell off the apple, I panic and push any button. My face turns beet red and lips quiver.

Okay, just relax. 

My items overflow the bagging area and I sling them into the cart. The register shuts down with an error message, “See attendant.” 

The computer system alerts the cashier, she marches over, fixes the machine and reminds me, “You must leave the bags in the bagging area until you are finished or the machine thinks you are stealing.”

If I knew so much, I’d be working here!

By this point, crowds pile up behind me as angry as the fans at an Oakland Raiders game. Hyperventilating, I try my last item, a birthday card. I run it over the scanner and slide it into the bagging area. 

The creepy computer voice reminds me, “Place item in bagging area.”

What the hell?

I catch the attention of the attendant for the final time. She drags herself over, letting me know with the shake of her head that I am beyond help.

“The card is too light-weight.  The machine doesn’t know if you put it in the bagging area.”

She enters her secret pin number, pushes a button and walks away.

Finalizing my purchases, I scan my club card, enter the Visa, take the receipt, grab the last bag and leave the store in humiliation. Didn’t even attempt to use a coupon. 

You’ve been warned.

Have you used the self checkout? Are you a fan? Not at all? Tell us in the comments!

Mary Lindsay June 30, 2012 at 01:31 AM
This touches a chord! I hate these self-checkouts (does anyone not?), and their snarky voices - but nevertheless I use them all the time. The Safeway and Ralph's checkouts are the worst. If the cashier lines are not too long sometimes I prefer that to the self-checkers. But interestingly, at Nob Hill they are better - not so 'touchy', so even though the principle is the same they are faster and easier.
Jacob Bourne (Editor) June 30, 2012 at 01:48 AM
I have the same problem. I always want to use them, then I get mad at them every time. And now the paper bags at Safeway are 10 cents each, so you HAVE to talk to the cashier if you didnt bring a reusable bag.

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