The Loneliness of the Self-Scanner

Been to a supermarket lately? Noticed anything?

Those of us in the UK who don’t have our groceries delivered [and I have penned a blog post about this in the past: Wandering Around in the Bagging Area] and who frequent supermarkets are being subjected to an offensive regarding the way we gather our comestibles etc.

It goes like this: A number of members of staff are allocated to diverting we unwary shoppers into the self-checkout tills, or worse, into the scan-as-you-go system.

From the shop’s point of view, I suppose the aim is ultimately to cut out manned check-outs altogether, chopping their wages bills and perhaps maximising shop floor space.

A quick glance around the store tells me I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic about the automisation of the shopping experience. For a start, it’s not like I haven’t tried it; it’s just that they are never fully automated, are they? Something always goes wrong. A number of people have to be employed simply to sort the glitches which renders the machines pointless-

Then there’s the term ‘self-check-out’. It’s a little too uncomfortable for those in later life. Myself, I’m not ready to ‘check-out’ yet.

Scan-as-you-go may well be the answer to the supermarkets’ prayers but it has no appeal for me.  We have grown used to weighing and labelling our fruit and vegetables in French supermarchés, however I’ve no desire to scan each and every thing I want to toss into my trolley. I want a carefree wander among the aisles, browsing and speculating.

Our nearest grocer is an upmarket, dearer one and dominated by older, retiree shoppers. Some of them are very elderly, shuffling around in slippers and comfort clothing, dependent on the trolley for support. In my younger, more ignorant, more impatient, time-poor days I’d castigate the elderly shoppers, fumbling for their purses, dropping things, peering with rheumy eyes at the card reader, but as one whose hands are no longer entirely at their owner’s bidding I have more sympathy for the slow, muddled, dithering old folks as they dawdle up and down deliberating at the freezers and pondering over the bread.

For a number of the lonely elderly a chat with a checkout operator may well be the only small piece of human contact they’ll get that day. If the human interaction element of the shopping experience is denied them they’ll be deprived of an essential bit of contact. I too want this minute bit of engagement. I want to be greeted, to be asked how I am, to have a snippet of conversation about the loaf I’ve selected or how beautiful the apples look. Maybe when I worked all day [talking] and only wanted to lie down in a dark room when I got home I’d have relished the thought of completing the shopping quickly and in solitary silence but I’m not sure that becoming fully automated is such an advantageous initiative.

There are already threads in the media over our screen use; how we choose to peer at tiny screens instead of conversing, how we’d prefer to play solitary screen games rather than engage with other humans. What effect is all this solitary behaviour going to have on us in the future? Answers on a virtual postcard…

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