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Reversing the Automation Trend July 29, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.

I was raised when everything that you did involved interaction with another person.  When my mother paid the electric bill, she went to the electric company office, and gave cash to a clerk.  You deposited your paycheck with a teller, and at the same time took out enough cash to last you to the next one.  You became resigned to spending your lunch hour standing in a long line at the bank, like everyone else.

In my mid-20s, I opened an account at a bank that used automated tellers, and gradually became acclimated to them.  In the intervening time, I’ve managed to use self-service gas pumps, self-service supermarket checkout stations, online banking, and airline reservation websites.

Many people, including myself, have come to prefer machine interactions over human ones for such transactions.  There’s no line, no human errors, and they generally take less time.

But the human element counts for something – a bit of person-to-person contact, a break from the monotony of sitting in front of the computer, and the potential (though not always the reality) to identify and straighten out a problem in real time.

Those and perhaps other reasons are why Albertson’s is eliminating automated checkout in its supermarkets.  Of course, this strategy only works if you have enough checkout people to be able to minimize or even eliminate the wait, especially for those with only a few items.  That’s what made automated checkout faster to begin with.

But I think there is something more to it.  I suspect that Albertson’s (and I’ve never been in one of its supermarkets) is interested in trying to establish a community of its shoppers based on a personal connection with the store and its workers.

It’s a risky strategy, and I doubt it will work.  But given the cost of that human contact, it’s interesting that someone is willing to give it a try.



1. eddodds - July 29, 2011

Hmm, I wonder if they didn’t staff well enough for the position of folks who inspect the automated check out and theft became a problem; or worse, a staff and customer figured out that they could game the system by bagging the groceries, putting them back in the cart without checking them and making away with unpaid items on a repeated basis? I wonder if the automated check out inspectors were taking the healthcare insurance premiums they weren’t getting (because of the traditional less than 40 hour work week enjoyed by grocery employees) in the form of “barter”… ‘ Course, I’m extremely jaded… and fairly good at pattern recognition and worst case scenarios.

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