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Hugh’s News: Grocery store outsmarts itself

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Posted on: June 15, 2012


BY HUGH TURLEY — Volunteerism has a proper place in society. But it’s not the grocery-store checkout line.

At many branches, Giant Food has reduced employees’ hours, compelling shoppers in a hurry to use self-service cashier aisles. For some time now, customers have been able to shop at our local Giant, on East-West Highway, without greeting and interacting with the nice employees who work there.

“Welcome to Giant. If you have a bonus card, please scan it now; otherwise, begin scanning,” the disembodied voice says cheerfully at checkout.  If a bar code is unreadable or a label falls off your fruit, the voice can say, “Please remove all items from the belt. Help is on the way.”

Only then will you have to speak to an actual person. But when employees and customers interact less, they exchange fewer smiles and pleasantries.  Everyone becomes less human.

Also, scanning – and often bagging – one’s own groceries can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience.

So why would customers choose to work as cashiers?   Sometimes the slow self-service is the only alternative to even slower service when Giant does not provide enough paid professional cashiers.

This enforced volunteerism exploits both customers and workers. Customers may not realize that by using self-service, they encourage the corporation to further cut staff hours. One staff member who did not wish to be named told me that employees with seniority, in particular, have seen a change in their schedules.

It should not be surprising that a company that would take advantage of customers by herding them into unpaid labor as cashiers would also cut the hours of its loyal employees. When I tried to contact the public affairs office of Giant Food to get their view on self-service,  I got a recording.  I left messages, but they were not returned. I never spoke to a person.

At the Giant on East-West Highway, the self-checkout touchscreen is a familiar sight to many shoppers.  Photo courtesy Susie Currie.
At the Giant on East-West Highway, the self-checkout touchscreen is a familiar sight to many shoppers. Photo courtesy Susie Currie.

The Hyattsville City Council should consider legislation to prevent the exploitation of citizens and employees.  If shoppers work as cashiers, they should be paid by the talking machine according to the amount of time it takes them to check out.  The machine can dispense change, so it could easily pay people for their labor – or at least offer store credit.

If the lack of human contact dehumanizes a trip to the supermarket, too much of it dehumanizes a trip in an airplane. It is time to end the post-911 hysteria that has government agents looking under everyone’s clothes.

The pointlessness of airport screening is illustrated in a recent syndicated column by Paul Craig Roberts, a former Wall Street Journal editor and Treasury Department official.  According to Roberts, if terrorists actually wanted to target airplane passengers, they would coordinate simultaneous bombs in several large airports, placing them “in the middle of the mass of humanity waiting to clear airport security.”

“This would be real terror,” he writes. “Moreover, it would present TSA with an insolvable problem: How can people be screened before they are screened?”

Ending totalitarian searches of travelers would not only restore every citizen’s right to privacy, but also free Transportation Security Administration guards to do something more productive – like checking out groceries.

People under the age of 40 may not remember that gas-station employees once pumped gas, washed windshields and checked oil levels for their customers.  Will we allow grocery clerks to become a thing of the past?




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