Selfish Shopping

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is on full display this week.  We’ve reached the critical timeframe – ten days out – where packages must be sent if they’re getting to destinations by Christmas.  We’re making lists, not just for Santa but also for last-minute purchases.  Now here’s the good news, weary shopper: no matter where you’re spending your holiday dollars, self-checkout is often an option.

If you’re like me, you beeline to self-checkout when you’re done shopping.  You still have “the control”, as people like to say (who also prefer to drive instead of fly).  With self-checkout you believe you can scan and bag faster than those who are paid to do so.  Maybe, but consider the decisions you have to make in the process::

  1. When do you choose self-checkout?  Most of the time, (especially if the checker-bagger lines are long) but what if you have a lot of items?  Self-checkout is awkward with a full shopping basket (ignore the stares).  One time my wife and I snagged side-by-side registers, put the cart between them, and scanned away.  Against the rules, you say?  What rules? 🙂
  2. Where do you stand in line?  This is touchy territory, shopper.  If you face the typical arrangement where one set of registers sits opposite the other, with enough open space in between, you can get separate lines for each set… which gets ugly when a person assumes he/she is entitled to the next available register on either side.  Prepare for battle.
  3. Which register do you choose?  Murphy’s Law of Self-Checkout: One of the registers doesn’t work.  You just assumed it was available because you couldn’t see the “out of order” screen until you were right in front of it.  Now you have to turn around and reclaim your place in line.  Again, ignore the stares.
  4. When do you alert the self-checkout human assistant (oxymoron?)  How many times have you gotten ahead of the system only to hear, “unexpected item in bagging area” or “please wait for assistance”?  Here’s a tip: don’t wait for assistance.  Most of the time the register is trying to catch up and just needs a little more time.  Congrats, you’re faster than a computer.

Hard to believe, but retail self-checkout just celebrated forty years.  We shoppers been doing what one writer describes as “quasi-paid unforced labor under surveillance” since the 1980s.  I remember how I wasn’t thrilled about the concept when it debuted.  Back then I thought, “Why do I have to do the checking out when someone else is paid to do it for me?”

I was even more annoyed when the airlines put up their “selfish” kiosks and dared travelers to check themselves in and print their own boarding passes.  How quickly we adapt.  Today I’ll choose self-checkout any time I’m given the option (even though surveys say 67% have a bad experience).  In fact, we’ve been conditioned to self-checking out ever since the debut of the bank ATM in the late 60s.  DIY checkout will only get more prevalent as companies reduce labor costs.  One of these days I can picture a self-checkout Starbucks, with a fully mechanical barista standing by to whip up your skinny latte.  Don’t bet against it.

Reasons we choose self-checkout (web.mit.edu)

Self-checkout is about to enter a new arena: clothing stores.  But what about those security devices attached to the sleeves or pant legs?  And how will they know if we slip an extra pair of shoes into the box? The bigger concern, however, may be image.  How will Saks or Bloomingdales look with a bank of self-checkout registers next to their fancy cosmetic counters?  Not the pretty picture of luxury shopping we’ve come to expect.

Image doesn’t matter to me so much, but my time does.  If self-checkout returns a few minutes to my day, I say sign me up.  But somewhere we’ve got to draw the line, people.  At the rate we’re going, human interaction will soon be the exception, not the rule.  It’s also not the direction a world in need of more face time should be heading.

With that, I put down the keyboard for the remainder of 2022.  Remember, the holidays are anything but “selfish”, and everything about face time.  Merry Christmas!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Self-checkout annoys some customers…”

Demise of the Department Store

In today’s headlines the Wall Street Journal turns to Sears – the aging department store chain – which will close 150 locations in the next several months. Sears will also sell its iconic Craftsman tool brand (to competitor Stanley/Black & Decker) in a longer-term “fix-it-and-return-it” strategy intended to strengthen the company. Clearly these events feel like the beginning of the end for Sears, and the end has been coming for a long time. The day Sears shutters its last store will be a sad one – as if a slice of the proverbial American apple pie is lost forever.

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In the defining years of baby-boomers Sears was the retail destination (and catalog) of choice.  Sears Roebuck and Company – as it was originally known – bridged the gap between America’s small-town general stores and today’s elaborate shopping malls.  As recently as 1989 Sears was still the largest retailer in the United States.  In a world dominated by Wal*Mart, Target, and The Home Depot it’s hard to picture Sears atop the department store heap just a few decades ago.

The Sears store where I grew up – on the west side of Los Angeles – is not one of the 150 due to close its doors this year.  That makes me happy.  My Sears store is forever embedded in my childhood memories.  It was where my mother clothed me and my four brothers.  It was where my father bought appliances and a workshop full of Craftsman tools (most of which I’m sure he still has today).  It was the brick-and-mortar embodiment of the Sears “wish book” – the wonderfully large and colorful catalog filled with 1960’s kids’ Christmas dreams.  Last and perhaps most significantly, Sears was the location of the “Portrait Studio”, for which my family dutifully dressed up and posed every Christmas.  One of my all-time favorite photos has all of my brothers standing smartly around the Sears-store Santa Claus, while I’m sitting in his lap bawling my two-year-old eyes out.

Sears would enter my life again somewhat unexpectedly, when I was in college studying to be an architect in the 1980’s.  On several trips to Chicago my classmates and I visited the Sears Tower, the distinctive stair-stepped black skyscraper in the center of the Windy City.  The Sears Tower was completed in 1973 as the tallest building in the world, and the first to use a “bundled-tube” structural design.  Forty-three years later it is still the second-tallest in the Western Hemisphere (behind the recently-completed One World Trade Center in New York City).

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Today’s Wall Street Journal article about Sears – which you can find here – includes dozens of reader comments more insightful than the article itself.  The comments yearning for Sears’ glory days are clearly written by my peers.  The comments blaming Sears’ demise on Amazon and other on-line retailers are largely from younger writers.  In one particularly stinging but accurate account, Wade Harshman writes, “I still like the brand.  I just don’t like waiting in line 20 minutes to buy a wrench because the one Sears rep is wrestling with a 1980 IBM machine and trying to sell an extended warranty on a $5 extension cord.”

If you Google “Sears Department Store”, you get the following up top:

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It’s a sad statement when all four sub-links of the initial hit point to marked-down prices as the way to get you to buy at Sears.  Then again this is senescent brick-and-mortar shopping we’re talking about.  Montgomery Ward disappeared in 2001.  K-Mart and J.C. Penny hang by a deteriorating thread.  Even Macy’s reports “dreary” holiday sales, poised to close (another) 68 stores this year.  Could Bloomingdale’s or Saks really be next?

Think about Sears and the disturbing/inevitable (take your pick) headlines of retail closings the next time you click your way to another on-line purchase.  Future generations of shoppers may not even understand the meaning of “department store”.