Not providing check out lanes makes night owls second-class customers

Christopher Harris

We, the creatures of the night, are second-class citizens.

At least in the eyes of the grocery industry.

About a decade or so ago, I tried writing a column (which never actually made it into the newspaper) about my loathing of self-serve checkout lanes. That's back when these were relatively new additions to the local retail landscape.

Well, I'm giving this perspective another shot.

Since that time, we've all just kind of gotten used to these things. Based on people I talk to, a lot of people seem to like them. Find them convenient. Those of us who don't have had to just kind of adapt to this new way of life, where we're told that when you shop late at night, you can either use one of these things or wait forever in line -- or perhaps not shop at all.

Well, as Captain America says in the trailer to the new "Avengers" movie, "Some people move on. But not us."

And by "us" here, I mean "me." And anyone who feels like me. I'm sure you're out there.

We have in this town a couple of major grocery retailers. There are a few other chains that don't typically stay open as late, but because I'm usually in the store to do my shopping no earlier than 10 p.m. -- and often much later than that -- I essentially have two options. And all other things being equal, I like these options. I like their selection, their store design, their prices and the simple ability to cruise the aisles of a store for relaxation purposes, surrounded by rows and rows of colorful packing and carefully-engineered freezer-section lighting designed to make items look more attractive. It's kind of a beautiful thing. Like being in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, except with meat and produce.

(This is why I'm not a fan of the curbside pick-up option. I appreciate that for some people, this is considered much more convenient than going in, but for me, it defeats one of the whole reasons for going to the grocery store, which is to actually be IN the grocery store. It's a magical place and, when run properly, a microcosm of everything that's great about America. But I digress.)

However, it appears as if the grocery stores have decided that I am not as deserving of service because of the hours I keep.

Go in during the daytime, and there are plenty of lanes open. You don't have to wait very long at all. But late at night, that all changes. One of the major stores -- which shall remain nameless -- at least keeps one lane open. Of course, there are plenty of people like myself who don't want to use the self-serve stations and so that lane gets severely backed up, which is a big problem when you have the people with a cart packed to the gills with many small items that need to be unloaded and scanned. Even opening up just one more manned lane would be helpful, but no -- those of us determined to have our groceries checked out properly must pay the price with our valuable time. And I'm willing to do it. But I'm not happy about it.

At least that's better than the other major store. At a certain point, they've tended to just shut down their regular lanes altogether and make available only the self-check outs. My options at this point are to either put my groceries back where I got them and leave (as I've done before) or to ask that the one employee standing nearby does it for me. Which they usually do, though they don't usually seem very happy about it. I'm sure they're thinking, "You're a clear-thinking person with two hands, why can't you do it yourself?"

Because I shouldn't have to do it myself. Because service is part of the grocery shopping experience.

A retail store exists to serve the customer. Now I'm not one of these "'I want-to-see-the-manager'-haircut" people who will haggle over small details and complain because my poor cashier who is just there to scrape together enough money to pay car bills and get to college isn't smiling at me perkily enough. I am a relatively simple person to please. Just let me get in, get my stuff, put it on a counter, have someone scan and bag the items, and leave. That's all I ask. That's all I've asked for nearly 30 years of my life now (figuring that I was able to start going to the grocery store at about 10 or so). Just the basic amount of service I've been accustomed to throughout my life is enough for me, thank you.

I am not a trained cashier. I do not wish to perform the duties of a cashier. That is not a knock on people who are cashiers; it is as noble a profession as any other. But that is not my job, and I don't wish to do it when I go to the grocery store. In the event that I ever do work as a cashier, I will still feel this way; if other customers are valued enough for me to help them with their purchase, then I too would deserve someone to help me with mine. It's just good business and basic courtesy. It's also part of what makes the grocery shopping experience what it is -- a matter of convenience.

If you expect me to scan and bag my own groceries, why not just have me grow my own produce too? I mean, that's simpler and more cost-effective than the store buying vegetables from other parties and shipping them in. If I grow my own garden in the back yard, think of the convenience for the store! Why stop there? I can raise and slaughter my own cattle too, if I want meat. I can skip the pharmacy and mix up my own drugs in a trailer like Walter White of "Breaking Bad." I'll even go out on the high seas and fresh-catch my own salmon. How convenient!

No. I go to the grocery store so I don't have to do any of these things. And when I go to the grocery store, I also expect to not have to do the cashier's work for them, the same way I don't do the butcher's work or the pharmacist's.

Now, I am no grocery industry professional, but I am quite sure there are reasons for things being this way. I know that self-check outs are cheaper than hiring actual people. I'm sure there have been studies done that show people don't mind doing this and past so-and-so-o'-clock, it's more cost-effective to limit the amount of open lanes, and ... yada yada yada.

I don't care. You're in the customer service business. I'm a customer. I'm a late one, but I'm a customer nonetheless. Don't treat me like I'm not worth serving properly because I don't come in at the right hour.

As such, I object to the self-check outs and will not use them on principle. If I'm standing in line and a employee hovering near the self-serves sees me and suggests I use one, I will say, "No, I do not use those."

I know some other people who feel this way. One common viewpoint is the objection to putting actual people out of work by using the machines. While I do not begrudge the mission of any business to make a profit, I understand and sympathize with this viewpoint. Indeed, I would rather a living, red-blooded human being have the job for their own sake. And frankly, the fewer machines, the better, probably. I'm not ready for Skynet to become self-aware, and to have to welcome our new robot overlords. I'd rather delay that inevitability, all things considered.

But you know what? The truth of the matter is, if a grocery store put an anthropomorphic robot behind a check-out lane, as long as it could perform the same duties as a person, I'd probably be content with that solution. As long as C-3PO is doing the scanning and not me, then the customer service goal is being achieved.

Still, I'd rather do the whole "How are you?" "Oh, I'm beat. Long shift" song and dance with an actual flesh-and-blood person though. Especially since sometimes clever and funny things are said in line at the grocery store. I can remember one bagging clerk who appreciated some history-related joke I cracked while checking out and went on a riff that had me smiling and laughing on the way out the door. Or the poor Pic-Pac cashier who nearly peed her pants in fright after she reached to pick up a rubber toy snake I'd put on the belt when I was young. No self-check out machine can achieve that level of entertainment, I promise you.

The most recent grocery store development is actually adding more self-check outs and taking out quick "15 items or less" lanes altogether, which strikes me as another monumentally bad move on the chess board of best business practices. Again, I'm sure if you assembled grocery bigwigs around a conference table, they could drag out their PowerPoint presentations and show you this study or that study about how this makes more financial sense ... but again, I don't care. Those of us who do not wish to do your job for you still want speedy check-out options. It's one friggin' lane dedicated to that purpose, you can spare it. I promise. And your valued customers -- you do value us, right? -- will be better off for it. The more options, the more optimal.

I do not wish to take anyone's self-check outs away if that's what they like to use. I want us all to have what we prefer. But please don't take away my preferred options either. I would like to know that a store doesn't see me as being less deserving of efficient service because I come in later in the day. Because that's what I feel like. A second-class customer. A throwaway. Someone the store dismisses, saying, "They can either wait in the one big, long line we'll keep open, or they can just check out their own darn groceries." It's like the retail equivalent of "let them eat cake." And at that time of the night, all they have for me is old, stale cake that is starting to look a little questionable.

I know I probably sound like an old man yelling at the clouds. I suspect that in time, younger people will never know how a grocery store was supposed to function. The same way my grandfather was appalled by the idea of having to pump his own gasoline, but it's just something I've been used to my whole life. But change comes at a cost; the new must destroy the old. And those of us who who fit the definition of "old" aren't too eager to be destroyed just yet. We're still around and kicking. Our wants and needs still matter. And you young whippersnappers are all going to be at the mercy of the Artificially Intelligent overlords before long anyway, so just go ahead let us fogies keep our way of life a little while longer before humanity fades into oblivion.

All joking aside, it's as simple as this: I don't care what the numbers say. This is about people. If you aren't giving us enough cashiers, you aren't succeeding as a customer-friendly business, period. If that's just the way the world works now, then que sera, sera, I suppose. But considering "customer-friendly" is exactly what a grocery store is supposed to be, that's a problem.

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a staff writer for the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @charrisatcj.

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