Scan do

You already know what I think about supermarket self-checkout lanes — “Meh” seems to sum it up — but now there seems to be Actual Data to support this conclusion:

In a recent research paper called “Dancing With Robots” [pdf], the economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane point out that computers replace human workers only when machines meet two key conditions. First, the information necessary to carry out the task must be put in a form that computers can understand, and second, the job must be routine enough that it can be expressed in a series of rules.

Supermarket checkout machines meet the second of these conditions, but they fail on the first. They lack proper information to do the job a human would do. To put it another way: They can’t tell shiitakes from Shinola. Instead of identifying your produce, the machine asks you, the customer, to type in a code for every leafy green in your cart. Many times you’ll have to look up the code in an on-screen directory. If a human checker asked you to remind him what that bunch of the oblong yellow fruit in your basket was, you’d ask to see his boss.

Forty eleven. (Unless it’s organic, then it’s 94011. Yes, I’ve scanned some bananas.)


  1. McGehee »

    8 October 2013 · 9:11 am

    Since moving, we’ve been doing our shopping at stores that don’t have self-checkout. They also don’t tend to have sullen, pimply-faced 18-year-olds at the checkout.

  2. Jennifer »

    8 October 2013 · 9:40 am

    I don’t know, I’ve seen the blank stares inspired by the lowly jicama.

  3. Charles Pergiel »

    8 October 2013 · 10:25 am

    Leafy greens? Food Nazis!

  4. CGHill »

    8 October 2013 · 10:59 am

    The one place I actually use this lane, they have all the produce marked with the four- or five-digit code. How hard would it be to put a proper bar code on it? (I’m guessing easy for bananas, maybe not so easy for pineapple, and fuggetaboutit for garlic.)

  5. Mark Alger »

    8 October 2013 · 3:05 pm

    At Kroger, at least, there’s an on-screen button you can hit [PRODUCE] that kicks you to a screen where you can pretty quickly select the type and the quantity (or leave it on the scale for weight). Doesn’t slow me down much.

    OTOH, Saturday, I went through a register whose operator was nearly on his first day out of training. He had to keep asking the lady at the next register what the codes were, ’cause the stickers weren’t on the veggies. No idea why.

    I didn’t really care. I wasn’t in a hurry. In fact, grateful for the chance to lollygag for once. Those guys are always in some kind of hurry to get you out the door.


  6. fillyjonk »

    8 October 2013 · 3:37 pm

    I, also, have been asked “What’s THAT?” for jicama.

    And for gingerroot. And for sweet potatoes, for Pete’s sake.

    On the other hand, if the cashier is reasonably engaged with life, the follow-up question is either “How do you cook it?” or “Does it taste good?” which actually leads to a little conversation.

    The only feedback I’ve ever gotten from a self-checkout is UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA.

  7. Tatyana »

    8 October 2013 · 4:41 pm

    Oh, jicama! I buy it in a rare supermarket that have a whole aisle with exotic items: Mexican shelves, South-American, Arab, Greek, Thai, British, etc stuff. Jars with marinated cacti, packs of mate, black sesame seeds, rose petals’ jams.
    Just bought a jar of Olde Chivers Marmalade: so deliciously foreign.

    Still, periodically cashier there does not recognize jicama. Or daikon. Or rhubarb.

  8. Nicole »

    9 October 2013 · 9:42 am

    “Yes, I’ve scanned some bananas.”

    But… have you scanned some bananas today?

  9. CGHill »

    9 October 2013 · 10:37 am

    Not since Saturday, actually.

  10. Nicole »

    9 October 2013 · 1:41 pm

    That doesn’t fit with the song. :(

  11. CGHill »

    9 October 2013 · 2:04 pm

    Which is why I didn’t specify the date originally.

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