Grocery gamble: self check-out or cashier?

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SELF CHECK-OUT

In my ideal world, all basic tasks would be carried out by touch screens. And increasingly, my ideal world is becoming a reality. These days, when I arrive for my doctor’s appointment, or when I want to check in for my flight, I simply have to touch a screen a few times.

This revolution has reached many corners of day-to-day life, none more so than the supermarket. Here it is then, in the next 600 words – my love letter to the self-checkout.

My biggest problem with the cashier is the obligatory awkward conversation. When it comes to small talk, I am utterly hopeless. I’ve never liked the phrase, ‘How are you?’ – I’m never sure if it warrants a response, but when alone with a cashier, I feel obliged to give them something back.

Faced with impending social interaction, however, I panic and get caught in two minds between the replies ‘Good’ and ‘Fine’. What blurts out is the mash-up ‘Goone’, which isn’t a word. It’s just a noise. They look at me with an expression somewhere between pity and concern. Suitably embarrassed, I take my bags and leave promptly, knowing I can never safely return to this store. If only I had gone to the machine.

My next issue is one of embarrassment. Some supermarket items are just embarrassing to buy. Strawberry flavoured lubricant, for example, or haemorrhoid relief ointment (supermarkets sell this; I looked it up). There are no non-shameful tasks you can do with these items.

Combinations can be embarrassing, too. A cucumber on its own is harmless enough, but what if you bought two cucumbers, a tub of vaseline and a lighter? It’s your right to be able to purchase these items without judgement or ill-feeling. The only place that this can happen is at the self-checkout.

Maybe these are extreme examples, but what about multiple tubs of ice-cream? Everyone has a Bridget Jones moment now and then. I don’t want some cashier looking at the ice-cream, then eyeing me up and down, as if trying to work out my BMI in their head.

Therein lies another argument – humans have this potential for sl ness and sarcasm, especially having done monotonous work for hours on end. Machines won’t do that to you. Sure, they’ll repeat themselves forcefully – ‘please place the item in the bag area’ – but there’s no malice there, no intent to cause harm. Perhaps the most obvious argument is one of speed. I’ll admit this may be an illusion; it may actually be quicker in some instances to go to the cashier. But there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to scan items yourself.

To have the control. And it seems the masses agree with me, because in our pleasant little Tesco, even when the cashier has a relatively short queue, people are queueing for the self-checkout all the way back to the pasta sauce section. And pasta sauce is a long way back.

So there it is: people can be mean, while machines are our friends. Self- checkouts are simply a less stressful way to shop; plus they allow you to buy two cucumbers, a tub of vaseline and a lighter. I’m not sure what I’d do without them…

David Grosset _____________________________________________________________________________________________

CASHIER

I’m socially awkward. Introvert-level socially awkward. Put me in a situation with more than four people talking and I will start behaving like a frightened badger -in my mental cubby hole and not willing to come out until someone throws me a verbal fruit to tempt me out again.

Which is why it’s strange for me to be arguing against the self-checkout machine. Truth be told I used to prefer using them. Much less terrifying than, you know, talking to an actual human being. Such a strategy used to work fine for most of my purchases, which amounted to no more than a pint of milk or some chocolate digestives (which I swear they put addictive sub-stances into). Three items, debit card, boom— ‘Please take your items from the bagging area’.

However, as I moved into my own flat and had to start doing the weekly groceries, people started getting very unamused as I struggled to fit in copi- ous amounts of pasta, veggies, energy drinks and other life necessities into the small bagging area. I tried cutting down on my diet— one pack of rice a week, canned fruit and veggies instead of fresh ones (takes up less space, easier to bag), but alas, man cannot live on canned pineapples and rice with soya sauce alone.

As such, I had to confront the cashier. “Hello! Would you like a bag sir?” A nervous nod from me and a plastic bag – which usually takes me some prolonged fumbling to open, not unlike a virgin struggling with a bra strap for the first time – is expertly opened in mere seconds. “Would you like some help with bagging?” At this point my heart rate was stabilising. “I’ll be fine thanks!”

Each item was then swiftly checked out and in a matter of minutes all my groceries were sitting neatly in two bags. Throughout the whole process she had the same smile on her face, and when she said “Have a nice day!” for a moment I thought she actually meant it. And maybe she did. I left much more satisfied than if I had used the self-checkout machines.

You might find this pathetic, me clinging onto an insignificant act of well-meaning to feel good. But how is it different from the host of feel-good things we do every day that are so patently, unequivocally, fake?

The friendly “Hey! How’s it going?” lingers in the air refusing to dissipate, but the person who uttered it has long walked on, seemingly uninterested to hear your response. The semi-drunken kiss at the Union or the Lizard is a hazy memory of genuine affection, taking away more than it gives. Why can’t I, or indeed, we, be entitled to a harmless “Have a nice day!” or a smile that is obviously been held for way too long to be comfortable?

Next time you think the cashier should be banished to the history books, think of people like me who depend on such morsels of well-meaning. And when they utter that all-too-familiar refrain “Have a nice day!”, relish it. Sweetener can be just as sweet as real sugar.

Raymond Wang 

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