Remember back in the day (I wonder how many of my blog posts contain that line? Quick, someone, invent an app that can figure that out. That'd be useful, wouldn't it?) when grocery stores and supermarkets were slow and inefficient? You'd go into the store, load up your basket or shopping cart, take it to the checkout and a nice lady in a starched uniform would find the price tag on every item and manually punch it into the till, and then she would tell you your total, you'd hand over the cash and then you'd be on your way. Gosh, that was crap, wasn't it? Surely we could improve on that?
So along came the electronic till. The process would be much the same except now when she punched in the prices, you'd get an annoying 'beep-beep' instead of the satisfying 'chunk-clunk'.
Then some bright spark was tinkering around with a laser and a series of rotating mirrors and figured they could get that to somehow recognise a bunch of vertical lines of differing thicknesses and a row of numbers and have it somehow correspond to the name of a product and thereby the price. (I still don't understand how this works, actually. I don't understand how VCRs work either - nor do I understand why the playback head on a VCR has to rotate and sit at a weird angle, but there ya go. Maybe one of my boffin chums can help me out with this.) So we had the bar code. Which meant that the nice lady in the starched uniform, who by this time had become a disinterested teenager with interesting complexion issues, no longer had to do all that tiresome 'punching in' of numbers, except when the bar code scanner failed to recognise the product in question and then she found herself (or himself - I'm an equal opportunity wise-ass) punching in ten numbers to get the computer to recognise the can of Spaghetti-Os you were trying to buy. Before long every supermarket in the 'civilised' world was scanning bar codes as if their very existence depended on it.
It was about this time that the head supermarket geezers were trying to figure out more ways of being spectacularly efficient, and they noticed that the one checkout that was specifically for people with only a few items in their basket (10 items or less, usually, though it was sometimes 8 or 12 depending on where you went), would be somehow 'better' if you took the staff member out of the equation and let Joe Public scan his or her items themselves, then pay using the same technology that populated all those infuriating snack machines in hotel lobbies. Simple, right? We clear out the space that used to house the one '10 items or less' till and put in 2 or 4 of these self-service jobbies, and then that should cut down on the horribly long lines, right?
Sure, I can see the logic behind it, after all, who hasn't been stood like a lemon with a pint of milk going sour in your hands while a family of six buys a week's worth of groceries in front of you, and they want to pay for some of it with cash, some with a check and some with food stamps?
However, this failed to speed things up, as some hyper-intelligent types with full shopping trolleys decided that ducking into a self-checkout when the shop was busy somehow meant that they would get through faster. After all, doesn't the old adage go that if you want something done properly, do it yourself? No, this does not work because I can think of very very few actual times when I've used a self-checkout when the damn thing didn't either fail to scan properly or something else that needed staff intervention. "Unexpected item in the bagging area,", the savagely polite female computer voice would intone, "please remove the item before continuing." This 'unexpected item' can be anything from one of your own shopping bags (if you are trying to be green), to a small child taking a breather, to the microscopic movements of a fruit fly, it seems. "There is a problem with this item. Please wait and a member of staff will assist you momentarily". These members of staff are constantly running back and forth between the self-checkouts, swiping their staff cards like fury and looking drawn and haggard. So, wait... we've replaced the one '10 items or less' till with 4 hyper-efficient ones that constantly need to be fixed or are out of service (I think they put the 'out of service' signs on them when they are feeling tired and hung over) and we have replaced the one nice lady in the starched uniform with the smile on her face with two or three dour individuals who wear ill-fitting sweaters? Seems like a step in the right direction to me, he said sarcastically.
Actually I have a great idea for a way to improve these machines. It won't speed them up any, or make them less fallible, but it will make them more entertaining.
You know how you get celebrity voices on things? You can get Joanna Lumley or David Letterman to say "You've Got Mail" on AOL, and you can get Snoop Dogg or Julian Clary to read out the directions on your sat-nav? Well, let's apply the same idea to the self-checkouts at Tesco or Wal-Mart! Wouldn't it be fun to hear Joe Pesci saying
"What da f**k is this s**t you've put in the bagging area?" or perhaps Brian Blessed
booming out "Wait a minute!! There appears to be some kind of problem with your shopping!" or perhaps
Simon Cowell critiquing your money-insertion style with a terse
"That was like someone in their bedroom with Monopoly money poking it half-heartedly through the slot in their piggy bank. Dreadful." You'd still be pissed off, but you'd be entertained.
Hey, it could happen.