Blown To Bits

Handheld Supermarket Scanners

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A few months ago, my local Stop and Shop added three more self-service checkout lines, thereby reducing the number of lines that had supermarket employees doing the scanning and bagging for you. I was annoyed, because I don’t like the self-service lines — not because I need to have someone else do the work for me, but because only in the staffed lines can I avoid the privacy tax without disclosing my identity. In Massachusetts, if you say to the clerk, “Please use your card,” they’ll give you the loyalty card discount. No way to do that at the self-checkout counters.

It wasn’t so bad, because the lines weren’t that bad, and there always seemed to be enough people in the self-service line who didn’t know English words such as “avocado” that they tended to slow down those lines anyway. And those lines have terrible interfaces, because the technology is cobbled together: the monitor for the scanner (where you have to punch in the item numbers for un-bar-coded items such as avocados) is separate from the credit card interface, which is separate from the signature pad, which is separate from the place where the receipt gets printed.

When I went in on New Year’s Day, there was a further innovation: hand-held scanners. You get one by — guess what — scanning your loyalty card and agreeing to several screensful of unreadable terms (which basically say you won’t steal the scanner and you understand that your purchases may be checked before you leave). You grab a supply of bags if you didn’t bring your own. Then you wander the aisles, scanning purchases as you bag them. You can cancel an item if you change your mind.

You can check prices, so if you are alert, you are less likely to be overcharged by mistake. Every so often, a cash register ring tone alerts you to the fact that the handheld scanner is displaying a discount coupon for another item in the neighborhood of one you recently selected.

Of course there is no reason to worry about those loyalty card discounts — you couldn’t have gotten the scanner in the first place without scanning your card, so you get the discount automatically. At the cashier (in either kind of line), you scan a bar code at the console, return the scanner, and pay the bill.

Now they seem to have closed more of the staffed lines, and the few remaining staffed lines seem to be really long. Gentle pressure to stop fighting for my privacy. And, of course, if the Stop and Shop can get me to do the work they used to have to hire people to do, they save money. I had gotten to know one of the baggers, a developmentally challenged woman in her 30s. I didn’t see her on my last trip to the store; I wonder if she now has employment challenges as well.

One Response to “Handheld Supermarket Scanners”

  1. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » Not Watching, but Weird Anyway Says:

    […] and Shop to buy groceries this morning, passing on the opportunity to use the hand-held scanner about which I’ve blogged already. Preserving my privacy, remember? When I got to the checkout I was happy to find an open […]