By David Abdel
As a young boy growing up, one of the first “jobs” I had was at the grocery store. Technically a volunteer position, it still paid. It was bagging groceries. The store didn’t hire children to bag groceries, but they did allow kids to hang at the end of the checkout line and offer to bag customers’ groceries for them. I was quite good at it, from watching my mother bag our groceries. See, she never allowed someone else to do it, for two reasons. One, she was incredibly particular about what went in each bag and was convinced everyone else did it wrong. Two, we were quite poor growing up and just simply didn’t have the extra money to tip the bagger. That is where the “job” came in for me. I was quick, and I was skilled in making things fit. This was in the era of Tetris, mind you, so I put those skills to good use. Never say video games don’t teach you anything! The bagging gig ended after a short while, and I moved on to using my free time in other ways. Sometime in the years to come though, without any suddenness of it happening, grocery baggers simply disappeared. It was back to being the sole responsibility of the cashier. This is where our story takes shape.
Those who know me well, know that I have a massive gripe with grocery stores and the self checkout line. Over the past few years, it seems as though this ploy for profit is growing in popularity as well as space in many big box retailers. Why, you might ask, do I have such a problem with this? Well, it started with the elimination of the grocery baggers. Simple enough, it was a job a child could do. A way for young people to make a few bucks on the side before they were of true working age. My perception is that it infuriated stores that someone was making a buck on their dime, without their cut, so they got rid of them. That wasn’t enough though. In true capitalist fashion, the wheels of enterprise began to turn and new ideas to recapture the almighty dollar began to unfold. If you’ve ever owned or managed a business, you know that one of the easiest and surest ways to add to the bottom line is to eliminate labor cost. So how could grocery chains eliminate labor, without impeding the flow of commerce. The self checkout.
Why not have the customers themselves scan and bag everything? We can get rid of a ton of cashier positions by making the customers their own cashiers! I have to believe that in this initial pitch meeting someone stood up and said “how are we going to get customers to be ok with that?” and the answer was by disguising it as “convenience.” The pitch would become “save time, do it yourself” and “no more waiting” when truly they’ve turned the customer into the employee, but without the pay. I never go through the self checkout specifically for that reason, I am not an employee. Until such time as I am paid for my work, I will not be scanning and bagging my own groceries. Imagine this same concept at a restaurant. Ok there’s the kitchen you can go grab whatever you want and fire up the stove and cook it yourself, enjoy! No way, we’ve gone too far.
Our lovely HEB corporation has taken it a step further with the brand new HEB-Go app. Now you can walk around the store, scanning as you go, and then you just pay on your phone and walk out. “Contactless!” they emphatically decree. Another step in the wrong direction. First it was the baggers, now it’s the cashiers, slowly eliminating jobs. As we rush toward automation and autonomy, all for the sake of convenience, we should ask who is it really convenient for, the customer or the corporation?