Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jean Paul-Sartre, Clean-Up in Aisle Two

Our local supermarket, feeling the competitive pressure no doubt of an Arkansas retail chain in a business where profit margins often disappear, has gone to a form of robo-shopping I find fascinating. You've probably have had it for a while but out here in the woods of Southeastern Connecticut where men are men and sheep are nervous (I offered that as a slogan for a recent municipal anniversary and was turned down cold. Humor-it's in the ear of the beholder, I guess), we have a bar-coded rewards card we sweep across a reader/scanner that releases for our use a handheld device that's tied to our card. That I should live to see such a day...

You wander the aisles, grabbing stuff you want, scanning it and putting it in bags (if you bring your own recyclable bags, you get a nickel credit per bag on your order). When you're done shopping, you head to a checkout and scan one final bar code that tells your handheld sidekick you're past tense, and it transfers your order to the register with the total amount in the display. You pay for your order and out the door you go.

I feel so brave new worldish every time I do it, assuming I can get it to work at all. I don't have performance anxiety, but my rewards card does. I can be a little slow in getting the master scanner to release into my care one of the handheld devices and as other shoppers start to pile up behind me, I have to do my best Coolhand Luke impersonation to compensate for the failure to communicate.

This whole process is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting people to paint his fence for him. It's not that the groceries cost less if we do all the heavy lifting, they don't. But this system isn't designed to make our lives easier. Once upon a time in grocery stores of a bygone era, there were actual employees who took the items a colleague was ringing up, placed them in bags (eggs and loaves of bread on the bottom, canned goods and automotive supplies on top of them) and placed those bags in your shopping cart and, if asked, would help you get that cart to your mode of transportation and then back to your abode where the unloading and putting away were your job.

Here in the new now, we've still got cashiers, baggers, courtesy desk employees, the whole kit and caboodle, who stand around as we wander the store with what look like Star Trek weapons at the ready. All we need are the communicators over our left breast pockets. And pointy ears, I suppose (check aisle four behind the breath fresheners).

The only part we're missing, but it's probably coming soon, are announcements over the store PA system that the Metamucil truck has arrived at loading dock two and twenty-of-those-of-us-formerly-known-as-customers-but-now-called-morons, are needed to unload it, and to stock the shelves in aisle eleven. Don't laugh-that day is dawning. We'll end up playing rock, paper, scissors to decide who's unloading the home pregnancy tests (they go at the header in aisle twelve beside the KY jelly display).

Yesterday, underscoring the perfect beast isn't quite yet where the Grocer in Charge would like it, I grabbed and scanned (in one motion; I've gotten quite proficient at this) a jar of lightly salted (with sea salt, no less) dry-roasted peanuts but, instead of a little peeps and a small green light, I got an electronic squonk and a near zen message in the device display: "The item you have scanned does not exist within your order." Oh? Hell is, indeed, other people, JP. Will that be paper or plastic?
-bill kenny

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