Another brick in the wall


There is one aspect to the entire Shop Locally campaign these days that has been somewhat neglected. It is really assuring to note that, over the past few weeks, people are shopping at local stores more and more, rather than just going online, or to big box stores. It may be more inconvenient to go out for curbside pickups, but it is helping our friends and neighbours, and that is never a bad thing.

But there’s something else that’s come to my attention and which gives me some concern. It is the increasing presence of do-it-yourself check-out machines in some stores. You know the ones I mean: instead of lining up to have your purchases rung up by a real live person at a cash register, you can use a machine and total up your own buys, pay the machine, and bag your own stuff.

Yes, interesting, if a little daunting at first. But once you get to know how to scan those black and white bar things, and can manage to scan, bag, and pay without getting completely confused by the politely spoken demands of the machine (“place the purchase on the…”, “please insert…” What? Money? Credit card? A box of cereal?).

There is a tendency to feel a little rushed by the whole thing, as if you should be as smooth and efficient as a professional, and not the slow-witted amateur that you feel yourself to be. There comes a moment, depending on the number of your purchases to be processed, that you have to resist the urge to scream at the machine: “Stop talking to me! I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” Ah yes, technology is our friend. We must obey the voice in the machine. Big Brother is watching you, and he’s mightily unimpressed by your scanning talents.

But none of that is really what I wanted to say. What is really concerning me is the way in which these machines are putting real people out of work. Supposing we all start resorting to automatic check-outs? What happens to the already underpaid people who are being by-passed in the process? Will they be retrained for other jobs in the store, or are they just redundant, in every sense of the word?

I am not against technological innovation. But I am against planned obsolescence, particularly if it is hardworking people on minimum wage who are being made obsolete. At the moment, it seems to be only the chain stores that have these machines: Shoppers Drug Mart, Macdonald’s, and that other one I refuse to name, but begins with a W. These big operators don’t need small operators, it seems, especially operators of check-out cashes. But it must be tempting for smaller stores and businesses to consider making a one-time purchase of technology to replace an on-going expense of actual people, who want breaks, holidays, weekends, or health benefits.

There’s another part of this that leaves me uneasy. There has already been a problem with scanning machines in stores, even when operated by humans beings. Does the price marked on the shelf, or on the product, equal the price programmed into the scanner? How can we be sure we’re being charged the correct amount? If you’re standing there, watching someone scan your goods, you can also watch the cash machine and make sure the price being charged is the one you saw on the shelf. But, if you’re busy trying to keep a machine happy by getting your goods through the scanner at a speed and smoothness of technique that is to its satisfaction, it is much harder to slow down and make sure the prices match.

As the Retail Council of Canada admits: “Incorrect prices can result in poor customer relations and legal sanctions”. The problem has led to the introduction of “The Scanner Price Accuracy Voluntary Code (“the Code”)”, which gives customers significant rights if there is a discrepancy in the marked price and that charged by a scanner. It’s worth (dare I say?) checking it out on their website (

Did you know that, if the correct price of the product is $10 or less, the retailer will give the product to the customer free of charge; or if the correct price of the product is higher than $10, the retailer will give the customer a discount of $10 off the correct price? Worth knowing, that is.

But, I ask again, how easy is it to question a machine that is scanning things incorrectly, or to even notice a mistake, when you’re the one trying to use the machines without crying? No, these machines may have their place (I could think of a few recycling sites), but not if they are making life easier for corporations at the expense (literally) of their customers, or, much worse, the expense of their employees’ jobs. So shop locally, know your local merchants, and support local jobs and businesses. And avoid the temptation to look knowledgeable and trendy by using the infernal machines. After all, they won’t smile and ask you how your children are getting on, or if you enjoyed your trip abroad (remember them?).

All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall that’s being built between us.


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