Tim Collins is a Sooke News Mirror reporter. (Black Press file photo)

Self-service is just a matter of greed, not better service

Remembering the old days when shopping didn’t make me feel like a thief, or on the edge of senility

It recently occurred to me that I’m doing a lot of work and not getting paid for my efforts.

Of course, the trend started when the first ATMs appeared. In my youth (OK, that was a long time ago) every bank had a dozen or so smiling tellers waiting to serve customers. At the same time, gas stations had attendants who would clean your windshield and offer to check your oil and tire pressure, and grocery stores had clerks who would actually help you find items.

And fine, before you think that I’m going to start waxing poetic about the way customer service used to be (it was better) I’ll acknowledge that the trend to have us do the heavy lifting while corporations disappear jobs and reap the profits isn’t going to go away.

It’s a matter of money. And greed.

You think that airports self check ins are about speed and convenience? Think again. One study showed that it costs airlines about 14 cents to process a customer through a self check-in and about $3 to do the same job with at a staffed desk.

A well-known fast food chain discovered that the introduction of self -service terminals resulted in customers spending about 30 per cent more. It seems that, if you don’t have to speak to a real person, the shame of super-sizing a meal was removed. I guess people just figure that they deserve a break today.

But beyond its contribution to clogged arteries, I wonder if we realize what the cost of the self serve culture has been.

The fast food chain in question has gotten slower and, God forbid if you try to go to the counter to order food. I did that the other day and the first two staff members that eventually approached me didn’t know how to work the cash till.

In another example, I was grocery shopping and found that only three human cashiers were working, all with long line ups. It was obvious that, if I wanted to get out of there before my milk reached its expiry date, I would have to go to one of the 18 self-serve tills.

The problems started almost immediately.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area!” the automatic voice cried out.

It may have been my imagination, but there was a bit of a tone there that implied that I was trying to sneak a can of shrimp into my cart without scanning it first.

The single bored clerk who was overseeing the 18 self check out terminals glanced over.

“Take your bags off the scale,” she said. “You can’t have anything on that side that hasn’t been scanned.”

Her tone at least didn’t imply larceny. Just the early onset of senior’s dementia.

But larceny is a side effect of self serve grocery checkouts. A recent study estimated that about four per cent of people using those tills will steal something.

For some it’s an act of frustration as the item they’ve tried to scan refuses to register and they resort to tossing it in their cart anyway. Some folks lie about the number of bags they’ve used and for others it’s a matter of mis-coding their passion fruit as bananas (code 4011) and getting a bargain. That’s why the machines finish up by asking of you’re trying to steal anything.

“Are you sure that you’ve scanned all your items?” they’ll ask.

For me, the final insult in the experience came after I’d scanned, packed, stowed and paid for my groceries.

“How did we do today?” the machine asked in a chirpy voice.

I stood there for a moment before actually talking back to the machine.

“You didn’t do anything. I did all the bloody work! I hope you rust and die.”

I noticed that the millennial at the neighbouring self-serve machine was looking at me with the kind of pitying look you give your Grandpa when he mis-buttons his shirt. I quickly left the store.

Tim Collins is a Sooke News Mirror reporter

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