My new career (almost)

Earlier today, I almost started a new job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. At the last minute, stubborn pride won out and refused.

The Supercenter I occasionally visit (a combination of geographic convenience and personal economic factors) is doing some remodeling. As a part of the reworking, they decided to institute self-service cashier stations. At the same time, they also did away with the express lanes.

I’m not a big shopper. I recall maybe half a dozen times I’ve bought more than 20 items at that store, and been ineligible to use those express lanes. I also don’t enjoy waiting in lines, so I’ve appreciated being able to get out quickly.

Now, though, they’ve apparently decided to do away with those lanes. If I’m in a hurry, I can cash myself out.

I don’t like self-service cashier stations. If I’m going to spare the company the expense of paying someone to ring me out, then they ought to be willing to share some of those savings with me, since I’m doing the work they previously paid someone to do. A discount per item, or a percentage off the total, would be appropriate, I think.

But apparently not. “We pass the savings on to you” is, it seems, a thing of the past — along with their former policy of opening new registers whenever there were three or more people in line.

I understand that despite their high profits, it’s all from volume — the profit margins of Wal-Mart are razor-thin. But sooner or later, the non-financial costs of those low prices will be too high.

Update: I apparently didn’t make it clear. My objection is purely philosophical, not practical. I firmy believe that if I’m going to do the work of a cashier, I am entitled to some compensation for my labors. I have used them a few times, and found them extremely simple to use, but aesthetically irritating and “dumbed down” to the point of being insulting. It offends me sorely to both be taken that much for granted AND condescended to so severely without some form of compensation. A discount — even a token one — would go a long way towards ameliorating the offense.

Ohio Primary Results
White Guilt and the Western Past
  • Personally, I love them. I especially love them when I’m in for a few quick items and they have 2 of the 46 check out lanes open because I had the misfortune of running in while they were in the midst of a shift change. I hate being in line with 40 other people listening to the ever more frequent page “All additional cashiers to the registers, please” and watching in frustration as they amble up in one’s and two’s looking annoyed as if our mere existence is the cause of all their problems.

    No thanks! I’ll take a self check-out any day of the week and twice on Sunday’s, which is about how often I use them at Home Depot and frequent them instead of Lowes.

  • Joe

    Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, ATMs, it all comes down to the improving productivity numbers of the economy. At HP (of which I am late of) increasing productivity was the mantra. Do more for less/with less (people) and the profits will soar. Yeah, right. You Jay, have seen the front lines of the soaring producticvity numbers of Amercan works, first hand. Alas, I have used the self checkout lanes a few times. And perhaps half the time end up calling over the single hall monitor to figure out why the machine won’t disgorge a receipt, change, the right price, or any price, or insist that I have not placed my item in the bag or there is a weight discrepancy or the bird flu has got the electronic innards is a knot. All in the name of productivity.

  • msuv

    Self-service registers? Does that even speed up the line at all or create more problems? Also, how do they work if someone writes a check?

  • assuming walmart sets their prices as a percentage over and above their costs, then everything they save money on in theory filters down to lower prices. As for an individualized discount for those using the self-checkouts (which I don’t like… but I’m lazy and think my putting the items on the conveyer is enough work), my guess is that Walmart considered it and decided it would be counter-productive to do so… whether because the savings would be so little that customers like you wouldn’t bother or whether they felt other customers would scream for the lower price even though they weren’t doing their own work, I don’t know.

  • Hornet

    I stopped going to Wal-Mart four years ago. I couldn’t afford it any more – not the price, but the time I wasted in line to pay.

    Getting nearly run over in the parking lot by one of Wal-Mart’s “Night of the Living Dead” customers on almost every visit was another reason why my shopping dollars go further — up the street to Target!

  • Of course your assumption is that the savings the store enjoys are not already distributed to the prices.

  • Leftician

    I never use them.

    Last time I went to Home Depot, there was a cash register attendent whose job seemed to be to talk customers into using the self-checkout lanes. When she asked me why I wouldnt use them I told her “Because I might need a job here someday.”

  • snowballs

    I live within sight of a Home Depot, Super WalMart and a Lowe’s. Talk about a crack addiction! Just out of sight of my front door, thankfully, there’s also a Super Target and an Ikea. Holy hell, I gotta get outta here!

    Also, did you ever notice that when there’s a WalMart/Sam’s Club, you’re not able to drive from their parking lots to the adjacent ones?

  • A chain started up back in 2003 here in Norway called Oy! that was entirely self-service. There would only be two visible clerks running the store, one supervising people going through the check-out, and another behind a counter with expensive items and things such as cigarettes.

    You would just toss things onto a conveyorbelt and they would scan themselves, you paid, and bagged your items. As you walked out the store, you had your receipt scanned by a sensor.

    The prices were really good. The chain was gone by 2004.

  • As someone who works a corporation that makes and sells things to Wal-Mart if their margins get too thin, it’s not their problem to figure out. It’s the supplier’s. They have to figure out a way to reduce the cost or risk being de-listed. That is a risk most consumer products companies don’t want to take.

  • Sorry, Jay, but I have to totally disagree with you on this one. (Full disclosure: I worked on the initial rollout of self-checkout while I was with WM).

    User checkout is one of those beautifully self-correcting ecosystems. You’re correct in saying that there will be people simply unable to grasp the concept, but the good part is that they never try again. OTOH, those of us who are comfortable with it use it almost exclusively. About the only time my wife and I don’t use it is when we’re buying a ton of produce and it would be rude to slow up the others while doing all of the lookups.

    Personally, I think it is the greatest thing WM has done for customer service. I now have a choice as to whether I want to stand in line to await a cashier who would most likely be doing anything else in the world.

    As to reducing cost: At the beginning, it probably increased their cost just because of all of the corrections, but as regulars become more comfortable, costs go down.

    I really can’t see the downside. Let’s face it, the bagboy that carries your groceries out to the car is never coming back.

  • And, by the way for steve sturm, WM does have target margin, not target profit. Their position is that if you’re making a huge margin, you must be charging the customer too much. I’m not saying this to shill for the company, it’s just how they operate.

  • just me

    I kind of like them, depending on what I am getting, and I would much rather do the self check out and be gone than wait in line for a cashier.

    I also almost prefer doing my own bagging-but then I am very picky about what items get bagged together, and it seems anymore that too many cashiers and baggers don’t know of or understand the concept of cross contamination.

  • wave_man

    From Jay Tea’s post

    a thing of the past — along with their former policy of opening new registers whenever there were three or more people in line.

    Funny, I thought that was a Target policy. I’ve never seen WM do that. The only time I’ve seen a Target or Super Target fail to do that was several years ago during a flu epidemic. WM’s policy has always been to have the Front End Manager or Head Cashier just stand there, look down, or swap out cashiers getting off while the lines get longer… unless the Store Manager or higher makes an appearance.

  • jpm100

    I think they are one of those things that sound great to stockholders.

    They are only faster if no one is ahead of you and there is a line up at the express lane with a clerk. Shoppers are actually pretty slow at ringing up and paying. A express lane clerk can easily whiz people through in a fraction of the time. The machines jam, have errors, run out of change and so these machines usually have someone watching over them anyway.

    The only thing that makes the express lane not work is when someone blatantly breaks the limit count and they pay with a freaking check or credit/debit card in the freaking express lane!

  • My main complaint about self-checkout is that there are too few: all too often they’re all in use and I still have to wait.

    The skill set required to use self-checkout isn’t all that challenging, and it isn’t any more work than trying to hold your temper while waiting in line to use a conventional checkout. Especially if the checker is small-talking with every customer and thus taking three times as long with each one than necessary. And it’s the only line open. On Friday afternoon.

    And of all the things I went there for, the only thing they had was the one thing I know I won’t find at their competitor across the road, which means I have to buy it here, and then go across the road and find that they don’t have half of what I need either.

    Letting me check out without human contact is the least they can do for me.

  • James Cloninger

    Self-service registers? Does that even speed up the line at all or create more problems? Also, how do they work if someone writes a check?

    1. If you have people ahead of you who only have a few items, and they know how to bloody scan an item, and the machine doesn’t hiccough on a bad scan, then yes, it does speed things up tremendously.

    2. No cheques. Cash/credit/debit only.

  • just me

    Oh, and I will add that they are good for keeping the kids occuppied while checking out.

    My kids love to scan the items, and I don’t know if it speaks well of my 7 year old, or poorly of those who can’t figure it out, but even he knows how to find the bar codes and waive them over the scanner.

    But I agree if the people in front of you on the self check outs don’t know what they are doing, it can be slower than a regular line. Also, some of them are very tempermental about things going in bags, WM’s though is pretty flexible, and has a “skip bagging” button-Home Depots can be a pain though.

  • Paul

    I firmy believe that if I’m going to do the work of a cashier, I am entitled to some compensation for my labors.

    Do you also feel the same obligation to help fund the more expensive self check workstations?

    Didn’t think so.

  • maggysturn

    Wow! If it’s “dumbed down” to the point where even Jay Tea is “insulted”, it must be pretty bad…LOL

  • We forget what “self service” used to mean. In previous generations, you would go to a grocery store and tell some employees what you wanted and they would run around the store and bring it to you. They would also deliver it to your house if you so desired.

    I think the modern “supermarket” is a product of the 50s.

  • What drives me crazy is the fact that they close the self checkouts down at night. I went into a WMarket (smaller grocery store run by WM) at 9PM on a Th. 2 lanes were open and as I walked up, they closed one of them. There were 15 people in the other line. I got fed up & announced loudly that since the self checkout was closed, I would go across the street to the locally owned competitor. 5 other people walked out with me, leaving their groceries melting in the store.

    Now understand, it’s not the number of items that slow down a line, it’s the number of people. The longest part of any purchase is the payment process. You can get through a line quicker by getting behind 1 person with 2 carts of groceries than you can getting behind 4 people with 2 items each.

    I hate the self checkout because no matter how good I get at it, it runs too slow ANDITYELLSATMEATTHETOPOFIT’SLUNGS!!!!!!!!

  • Cousin Dave

    I used to like the ones that the K-Mart had here. They were fast and very convenient for a few items. Unfortunately, K-Mart is all but out of business in this area now.

    Wal-Mart rolled out self-service checkout in my area last year, and they are now in the process of taking them all back out. Reasons why:

    1) The goobers who would roll up with a whole cartful of stuff (the machines weren’t marked as express lanes) and then take 30 minutes to scan all of their items.

    2) The incredible array of items that now requires showing ID to purchase. You have to show ID to buy motor oil! Every time such an item is scanned, the hall monitor has to run by and punch in a 49-digit override code.

    3) The fact that, at any given time, at least one and usually two of the four machines in a cluster is out of service.

    4) And this is the worst: the machines are incredibly fussy about where you put items down. If it doesn’t think an item is in the bag (if you are purchasing something light, like a watch battery, too bad), it stops and complains. If you put an item off to the left on the side of the machine to get it out of the way while you get other items out of your cart, it stops and complains. If you remove a full bag and put it in your cart before the machine thinks you should have, it stops and complains. In a 12-item purchase, it isn’t unusual to have to get the hall monitor to come over three or four times. And every time, said hall monitor has to punch in the previously mentioned 49-digit override code. Half the time, they give up and keep the machine in override and watch while you scan the rest of your items. Of course, while they are doing this, other lanes that need overrides aren’t getting serviced.

  • D. Doré

    If it were true that WM was passing along the savings from having 1 cashier overseeing 4 self-check registers to the entire clientele, that still seems wrong. It’s my time and skill being used. A tiny 5% discount for ringing would be fitting.

    I agree with Jay. Unless they are compensating me for my time and skills as a cashier, it’s not worth using them. Perhaps I could just submit an invoice to all the stores at the end of the fiscal year as an “Independent Cashier Contractor” for the time I’ve spent ringing these transactions.

    Besides, even if the line at those registers seem shorter, it only takes one neophyte in front of you to make the whole process take 3x’s as long as it should.

  • Cousin Dave, it sounds to me like they’re taking them all out because the wrong machines were installed. What you’re describing doesn’t sound at all like the way self-checkouts seem to work where I live.

    My rant above was actually about Kroger, since I don’t go to Wal-Mart much — it’s too far away and it seems just getting from the closest available parking space to the store I’m almost walking as far as if I’d walked from home. And of course the inside is as big as some stadiums.

    After all that, the self-checkouts are the high point of the trip, and not just because when it’s over I get to leave.

  • Imhotep

    Cousin Dave,

    You are not supposed to buy your Coors light, comtrex, motoroil and ammo on the same day.

    I wouldn’t get behind you in the self check, LOL.

  • Tim

    I don’t mind. But then again, I started printing my own Equate money.

  • Deb

    I’ve always figured that the chance of getting out of the store without having to make any small talk is all the compensation I need.