I used to enjoy grocery check-out time. Not anymore.
For years, I'd put my groceries on the conveyor belt, a friendly cashier would say hello, we'd have a quick chit-chat, and she'd ring up my items. A bagger would then deftly slide my food into bags, and—when I was really stocking up—would even push the second cart out to the car so I didn't have to make two trips. Couple of jokes, couple of new acquaintances, fresh fish, beef, cheese, butter, eggs, a few other things, and that was it. All very easy—even enjoyable.
But now, as with so many other aspects of life, this pleasant little everyday experience is vanishing. And it's vanishing for two reasons: the computerized replacement of check-out cashiers altogether, and an increasingly grating experience with the cashiers who still remain.
Let's start with this: I'm against touchscreen check-out.
No human interaction means no more friendly banter or jokes, no more recognizing someone or them recognizing you, no more evolving acquaintanceships, and no more personal connection to any particular establishment. It also means having to figure out which buttons to push on whatever check-out software each store is using. It means having to scan and bag everything yourself. And it means having to deal with glitchy screens which, surprisingly often, don't work, after which you have to wander around for five or ten minutes to find a supervisor with the right password to reset it. It's cold and complicated and (in an echo of my recent cranky piece on appliances), it makes me want to go back in time.
Yes, I'm aware that many stores say they install touch screen check-out because they can't find enough good workers. I'm not sure I buy that. But even if it's true, I figure if the store offered another buck an hour to prospective employees, plenty of new applicants would arrive. That is how the world works, after all.
And if they did, how much, really, would that push up my grocery costs? One percent? One extra dollar on every hundred spent? That's nothing compared to the food price hikes the Biden Administration is causing. In any case, I'd rather pay a bit extra to be able to have a check-out experience like those I had for the first four plus decades of my life, and avoid the plague of touch-screen check-outs.
The alternative to computerized check-out is, of course, dealing with an actual human. But even that's a lot different than the old days.
Back in the good old days, my typical check-out conversation at the local grocery store would go something like this:
Cashier (smiling): "You're back".
Me: "Yup. Hi. How's it going in here today?"
Cashier: "Exciting—some kid knocked over the grapefruit display this morning. Took the guys half an hour to stack them back up."
Me: "Just one more reason to start putting kids on leashes".
Cashier (laughing): "You're bad. You should see some of the stuff we see in here."
Me: "I've seen it".
Cashier: "Oh—I love these bratwursts!".
Me: "Yeah, we did a bratwurst competition last year, and those won."
Cashier: "We did the same!"
Me: "Dave the manager's your husband, right?"
Me: "I gotta talk to him about this next time I see him".
Cashier (chuckling): "He's very serious about his barbecues."
Me: "As he should be".
Cashier: "Ha. Okay, that'll be $72.33".
I pay. Bagger has put my bagged food neatly into the cart. I push cart to car. I load groceries. I drive home. I bump into Dave the Manager next time I'm at the grocery store. We talk about the bratwurst. Turns out our kids are on the same soccer team. Or something similar. We become chummy. Friendship evolves. Et cetera.
I've experienced something like this many times.
But these days, grocery store check-out "conversations" aren't conversations at all. They're more like what might happen if you got shot down over German-occupied France, the Nazis caught you, and then their chief interrogator slammed you into a dark grey room and machine-gunned you with question after stupid question until you started screaming for it to all stop.
So now, the grocery store check-out "chat" goes more like this:
Cashier: "Did you find what you were looking for today?"
Me (thinking,"Here we go"): "Yep."
Cashier: "Did you check your eggs?"
Cashier checks eggs. None broken.
Cashier: "Would you like your meat wrapped?"
Me: "No, thanks". Cashier: "Are you aware that if you buy four oranges instead of just three like you have, you get three percent off?" Me: "No". Cashier: "Would you like to go grab a fourth orange?" Me: "No, thanks".
Cashier: "Do you bring your own bags?"
Cashier: "Would you like to buy a bag for fifty cents?"
Cashier: "What kind of bag would you like?"
Me (thinking, "I don't care, just put the &%$#@^ food in anything and stop asking me questions"): "Plastic".
Cashier: "We longer carry plastic bags. Would you prefer paper, recyclable, or a cardboard box?".
Me: "Paper, I guess".
Cashier: "Are you a member of our Super Saver Rewards program?"
Cashier: "Would you like to join?"
Me: "No, thanks".
Cashier: "We're offering a special one-time discount for new sign-ups, so if you sign up today, you'll save two percent on your bill. Would you like to reconsider, and join today?"
Me: "No, thanks".
Cashier: "Are you collecting frequent flyer points?"
Cashier: "Do you have any coupons to redeem today?"
Cashier: "Would you like to donate five dollars today to the Tiny Dyslexic Children with Muscular Dystrophy Parade for Aid to Ukraine and Africa?"
Me (thinking, "How the hell would I ever know if that was legit or not? Hunter Biden and his hookers are probably getting all this money. Besides, this store should be giving ME money after my financially cataclysmic divorce..."): "No, thanks".
Me (thinking,"guy's trying to micro guilt trip me").
Cashier: "Can we have your zip code to help serve our customers better?"
Cashier: "Okay, and what's your phone number?"
Me: "I don't give that out,".
Cashier: "Can I get your email address so I can add you to our mailing list for all the latest promotions and discounts?"
Me: "I don't give that out, either".
Cashier: "Would you like any lottery tickets today?"
Cashier: "Are you collecting stamps for our Spring-tacular Grand Prize Giveaway Draw for the salad bowl?"
Cashier: "Will that be cash, check, debit, or credit?"
Cashier: "Do you need me to call someone to help you take your groceries outside?"
Cashier: "Do you need a receipt today?"
Cashier: "Would you like a paper or electronic receipt?"
Cashier: "Is there anything else I can help you with today?"
Let me think.
It's a big question: Is there anything else you can help me with today? The real answer, I think to myself, is, maybe there is. And the more I think about it, the more the answer goes like this:
You can "help me" by being normal. Like, being human. For example, you, and everyone like you, in stores everywhere, can "help me" by no longer machine-gunning me with dozens of stupid, pre-scripted questions every time I try to buy something. In fact, come to think of it, you can "help me" by inventing a time machine so I can go back in time to 1986—or even better, 1958—so I can stay there forever. You can "help me" by turning me into Marty McFly for the rest of my life, frozen forever in Eisenhower's America.
You can "help me" by instantly vaporizing all our execrable cultural overlords, and replacing them with Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Sam Phillips. You can "help me" by restoring American greatness, freedom, order, confidence, sanity, civility, cleanliness, sociability, family stability, and a dozen other good things.
Forget me for a second—let's talk about you. You can help yourself by taking off your double Covid mask, which does no good, and accepting that the Covid thing is over.
You could also help yourself by taking out your septum piercing, losing the Groucho Marx eyebrows, and eating a steak or something. Like, get some sun. You look seriously ill.
I could go on for hours, but let's just start here: Can you just stop asking me a zillion questions?
That's the real answer.
But the answer I actually give to the question "Is there anything else I can help you with today?", is just, "no, thanks".
Maybe I should change that. Maybe I should start having public meltdowns at the grocery store, where I mention Eisenhower and everything, like I just did.
Or maybe I should send an email to the manager. Except...that wouldn't work. We're in a new era now. Sincere human engagement used to saturate every aspect of daily life. Technological progress, and maybe, particularly virulent profiteering, are now eliminating that by the day. It all seems as unstoppable as it does lamentable.
Maybe this sounds like neo-Luddism. Or exhaustion from the modern world. Maybe it's all me, and I have the problem. Or maybe it's just that too much of any good thing becomes a bad thing. Or that not everything is scalable. Or that the ultimate criterion for evaluating new developments, whether cultural or technological, is the extent to which it provides a net benefit to humanity.
I don't even know, to be honest.
All I know is, I used to rather enjoy grocery shopping, and now I don't, because nothing's normal anymore. I either deal with a robotic fusillade of grating questions from an indifferent, glassy-eyed, double-masked, anemic wastecase guy (or furry-browed girl), or an electronic touch-screen which doesn't even work half the time. There's nothing in between anymore.
So if any of my readers has invented a time machine, do let me know. I need to pick up some of those bratwursts for my barbecue this weekend—and maybe make a few new friends along the way.
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