Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 28
July 13-19, 2000
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Do-It-Yourself Goes to Extremes
‘Reeling and writhing’ at Giant’s Automated Checkout

“Reeling and Writhing, of course … to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied, “and the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”

—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll.

It has taken most of my life, but at last I’ve found what I consider an appropriate definition of figuring with numbers. Arithmetic, bah humbug!

Might I add a thought of Plato who was around from 428 to 348bc: I have hardly ever known a mathematician who was capable of reasoning.

I guess by now you get the gist of my thoughts about figures, adding, subtraction, multiplying, dividing, anything to do with numbers. Today, computers do about all our figuring for us — that goes for IBMs, Macintoshes and the rest of the Silicon Valley pack.

Like Plato, I never met anyone I liked who was good at figures. They’re like computers, aloof, incapable of feeling. They hardly ever make mistakes — and if they do, they blame them on me.
I’m from the days when Momma went to the grocery story in the village with a handwritten list, handed it to a clerk who scurried around the shop to grab all the items, and stacked them on the counter.

Old-Time Figuring

I can see it now: Slightly built, bespectacled, Phil Paquin reaching for the pencil always on his ear, then taking a paper bag and making a long column of numbers, whetting the writing instrument every now and then with his tongue.

Next, he would start adding aloud, and that was a time when the Burton kids couldn’t talk, giggle, laugh or anything. Phil needed quiet to concentrate on the numbers. If he lost count because of interruptions from us, and had to start again, there would be no stop at the penny candy showcase to select a piece of chocolate or perhaps a gumdrop.

Sometimes, it seemed it took him longer to add up that long list of figures then re-check his arithmetic than to gather all the groceries Momma had on the list. He knew where everything was in the store, from cookies and molasses in barrels to 10-cent tins of salmon to boxes of Rinso.

There were no shopping carts or baskets in those days, and not many choices either. Some items were stacked high out of reach on shelves, and Phil would use a long-handled contraption with a claw at the top to clamp down on the item wanted and lower it to within the grasp of his hands.

Only he and his clerk knew where everything was, so no one wandered about looking for Corn Flakes or sardines. Everyone waited with handwritten list in hand.

The check-out was the verbal adding. The only keys in the store were on the cash register that opened only to accept money. The only receipt was the numbers on one of the paper bags filled with provisions.

New-Age Figuring

I thought of Phil Paquin and his grocery store when I ambled into the new Giant Food at Severna Park the other day. Phil’s whole store couldn’t accommodate just the cold breakfast cereals lined up on the shelves in the Giant.

But I wasn’t there for my Corn Flakes, Grape Nuts and Shredded Wheat. I was there on a fact-finding mission. I wanted to see the latest innovation in food shopping, a gizmo that lets one check out the goodies electronically, no clerk needed.

I’d seen it written up in the papers, do-it-yourself checkout via self-scanners. It seems a shopper can go into this particular Giant now, shop, pay and self package without a word being said — unless one considers the computer generated vocal instructions and questions on the wall of the self-service area.

The whole computer rig was installed when Giant moved from smaller quarters a few stores north to much bigger space at Severna Park Mall — all with much fanfare, I might add. Sure, the usual check-out clerks are stationed at the end of those black rubber tracks that automatically carry groceries to them and their computers, and they scan them, ask if you want paper or plastic and always end up bidding you a nice day — if you haven’t upset the applecart by requesting paper bags after they automatically started to stuff things in plastic.

There’s a whole row of those kind of checkout stations, but to the south of them, there are four of the new gadgets, two on each side of a partition perhaps five feet high.

And there’s what you might call a bench on that partition so you can set your provisions down, once checked, until it’s time to bag them — and the computerized voice will tell you when that time comes.

In the middle of this wide aisle is a little station where a — I don’t know what you call her — person sits overlooking the whole operation. Trouble is, she doesn’t get to sit much. I noticed that computer illiterates like me still aren’t rare. As soon as she returned to her station after helping one shopper, another one or two would call aloud or motion for assistance.

I’m not one to even experiment with computer gadgetry, but after reading how easy the process was — and remembering how often I stop at a supermarket for just an item or two to find myself behind someone with a cart full of groceries and an open checkbook at the ready in an express checkout line — I figured maybe self-service was something I ought to check out.

I didn’t need anything in particular, so I chose a large bottle of cherry-flavored ginger ale on a shelf that indicated it was on sale for 89 cents. Then I headed for instant checkout.

My heart sank as I approached a unit not being used. At the next one was a girl of about 9 saying “Dad, that’s not the way you do it. Let me show you.” She punched away at options on the screen as her bewildered father watched. I shared his embarrassment.

I had to pound a key indicating I was ready to check out, then a bunch more keys to tell the computer how I wanted to pay. There was even a slot for a credit card.

Next I had to find the bar code on the soda pop and run it by the scanner, which activated a digital screen that displayed the price. It read, $1.39, 40 cents more than that listed on the shelf. But I’m not one to argue with a computer — curse one maybe, but not argue. Furthermore, I was afraid of what might happen if I decided not to take the ginger ale I had already rung up.

After being asked if I wanted anything else, I punched a button and the sweet computer voice of a woman asked me if I needed postage stamps. I had to find a button to decline.

My tab, including tax, came on the screen, I pushed two dollar bills through a slot, return change came from another orifice, and I counted it. Then the voice told me I could put the bottle in a bag — no choice of paper or plastic though I was warmly and verbally thanked for shopping at Giant.

Only twice did I need help from the young lady overseeing the operation from her booth, but she was too busy to talk to me about shopper reaction to self-checkout. She had others to help.

I only wish that Phil Paquin could have been watching.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly