I pull out my keychain and try to scan the ragged and frayed customer loyalty tag. After the first two attempts and it doesn’t register, I’m still reasonably patient. After three more, my brow starts to furrow. After five more, I’m having violent flashbacks of trying to get wrinkled dollar bills in the junior high vending machine. At about the tenth try, I’m cursing whoever designed the loyalty card (“Let’s see. . . We need something that will stand up to the wear and tear and rubbing against metal keys every day. I know, let’s just laminate a piece of paper.”). Then it finally beeps.
“Welcome, valued customer.” Nothing makes me feel valued like a computerized voice telling me the same thing it tells everyone else. If they really wanted to improve my grocery shopping experience, they would replace that voice with some flirty British celebrity and personalize it: “Welcome back Chad, I’ve missed you.”
“Please scan your first item.” I obediently scan the first item. I hear the beep. “Please place your item in the bagging area.” I have approximately a third of a second to accomplish the task before . . . “Please place the item in the bagging area. Place the item in the . . .” And as soon as I do it, “Please scan your next item.” It says the bossiest, most impatient things, over and over again, but in such a sweet tone with polite words. I think it was programmed by a preschool teacher.
Once I get started with my scanning and bagging, I’m fairly good at it. I’ve practiced now for a few years. I get into a rhythm. I start passing canned goods and little tubs of yogurt from one hand to the other like a seasoned juggler. One hand scans, the other bags. I even have a couple of produce code numbers memorized. That’s right. I can’t remember my family’s phone numbers because they’re in my cell phone, but I can recall that the banana code is 4011 (Which, strangely enough, is also the number you call for information about produce).
Once I get going, it’s like I’m competing against some imaginary clock. In fact, if I was to suggest an improvement to the machine check-out experience, I should be racing against the clock. The little voice could give me updates, “56 seconds have passed and you have scanned 19 items.” And if I go at a certain speed they should give me a discount on my groceries—reward my effectiveness. “You bag at a rate of 1 item ever 3.1 seconds. The all time record is 1.5 seconds.” Maybe it could sync up to the customer on the next isle and we could compete. Loser pays for both sets of groceries. Crowds would start forming—people cheering. There could be national competitions. Nintendo could come out with Wii grocery. Alright, I’m officially carried away.
I had been navigating the machine, scanning, and bagging my own groceries for months before I had a realization—I’ve been tricked into doing a minimum wage job for free.
This was followed by another epiphany. I do the same thing to rent movies. I go to the giant digital box, find my own movie, and swipe my own card. Where is this going to lead? Am I eventually going to assemble my own hamburgers? (“Remove your patty from microwave tray 1. Use the caulking guns to apply one squirt of both ketchup and mustard. Place one undersized pickle in the very middle of your hamburger. Place only one pickle. Only one pickle.”)? Check myself into a hospital? (“Please scan your insurance card. Now press the button which best represents your medical emergency. Now place yourself in room 214.”) Or worse? “First use the long needle in the tray below to anesthetize yourself. Then follow my instructions to make three simple incisions into your own abdomen. . . . Thank you for doing self-serve surgery. This system was invented by the same man who first engineered the customer loyalty card for your keychain.”