May 27, 2024

Column: “That Got Me to Thinkin’…? “Self Checkout”


“That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” “Self Checkout” Chapter 92
By Bruce Williams

Bruce Williams

As the kids and I were buying Mother’s Day flowers and a chocolate torte Saturday at Haggen’s after a long day at work, I noticed there was only one line lit up to serve customers and there were eight queued shopping carts in it.  “Just go through the self-checkout—Mom always does,” said my daughter impatiently.  I never use it—I figure I’m saving jobs by not doing so, but I also don’t like looking for thirty different barcodes and bagging my own groceries, especially if there’s no discount (or health insurance) involved.  They certainly aren’t lowering any prices in appreciation of all your newly found hard work.

I shuffled over to the kiosk not knowing even where to begin and noticed one of the regular checkers now forced to stand sentry and advocate on behalf of the public’s clumsy idiocy.  Lou took the lead and punched a few of the buttons and got us started—the flowers were relatively effortless with their UPCs easily visible, but the torte had nothing on it but a price.  Again Lou navigated the keypad and we were suddenly on a page with fifty kinds of apples (am I going to have to learn all of these in the future?  I couldn’t tell you the difference between Fujis and Jonagolds…I just pick the healthiest ones out and throw them in a bag).  Suddenly, our screen indicated we’d be needing an attendant’s services.  I had to garner his attention and have him amble over with his authoritative override scanner, and while he was there he flipped over the cake’s price label on the box to reveal its barcode.

I started thinking about all the jobs that have gone to the wayside due to this relatively recent surge in automation.  Gone are the surly record store clerks (iTunes), the smoking travel agents (Expedia), the knowledgeable bookstore literacy advocates (Amazon).  Most mining and automobile assembly is now done by machines.  The trucking industry is on the near-verge of a self-driving revolution, displacing drivers and striking a huge blow to CB radio makers and hemorrhoid cream manufacturers alike.

Where will the automation end?  Maybe someday they’ll sell our suits out of giant vending machines—I think I’ve seen something similar to this for cars in Japan…like a huge Matchbox Pez dispenser.  There was talk of a Universal Base Income in the last election cycle (Yang)—essentially $1,000 per month for those displaced by automation or dead industries.  It didn’t receive much traction, but the idea may grow as more and more manual labor and service industry jobs become replaced or are rendered so undesirable that no one will fill their openings.  We’re seeing that across the board now for entry-level jobs; spots going unfulfilled, service suffering, open hours shortened as a result.  Even the $15 minimum wage isn’t seeming to help too much, as inflation is rising at a faster pace as to leave wage increases moot.

I digress.  I simply don’t want to check my own groceries.  When I go to Home Depot and have a question I don’t want to have to search for an employee, and when I find that employee I don’t want them to be a vacant-eyed, shrugging teenager with purple hair.  Certainly not in the name of corporate profits.  Surely there’s a soft spot between a decent margin and viable service?  Shaving executive salaries seems reasonable—CEO pay has skyrocketed 1322% since 1978–they now receive over 350 times what their average worker gets paid (according to the Economic Policy Institute).  That seems a little gross to me, but I don’t want to get all ‘Communist Manifesto’ on you, so I’ll just keep waiting in the lone cashier line letting out periodic sighs as I ease into the harrumphery of my silver years.  I’m probably not saving any jobs, but I’ll use my freed time to gawk and make observations, thank you.