I've just completed the weekly shop at ASDA (the UK arm of Wal-Mart) and, because our shop this week was small, elected to use 'the fast lane'.
Now I love technology, and I can see the benefits to the consumer of reducing the weekly shopping bill, but I'm not sure I'm up for the price. Like many retailers ASDA have chosen to provide more self-service tills than staffed tills. The idea, I assume (in the heads of the gurus who decide these things), is to reduce the staff levels by making the customer do the checking out, after all we happily fill our trolleys ourselves, have done so for years. But fast lane?
For those yet to use one of these shopping options, here's how it works. First, place your basket alongside the scanner or, for larger shops there are conveyor belts running up to the scanner. Yes, you can do the big shop yourself too. Then press the screen to start. Now there's an added complication because here in Wales there's an environmental charge on bags to encourage us to reuse them, which most of us do most of the time. England has this on her horizon. So I advise the terminal that I've brought my own bags. Then, and only then, can I put them on the exit platform where I pack the bag. Forget and put your bag down early and you'll get automated invective remonstrating you that an unauthorised object is in the bagging area. Unauthorised? I'm shopping, not attempting to overthrow the State.
So now the fun starts. Scan your first item, or at least attempt to. My view is that the staffed scanners are more capable than the customer ones because when I've located the bar code I have to offer it up to the scanner window (either or more likely both as there are two) then jiggle the product about until the scanner recognises it. If you do this close to a staffed till you will notice they will have scanned between three and five items while you've been doing the baked beans hand jive. Sure, the paid operatives will be more experienced at scanning, but they just seem to slide each item in approximately close proximity to the scanner for it to record the item, but not for us mortals.
Even if you manage to scan as fast as the experienced shop assistant, you will still be quite a way behind them in the scanning stakes. Because the professional scanners can scan subsequent items while the previous item is still in their hand, and certainly before you've bagged it (another task us customers accepted without a moan years ago). Not the fast lane, mind. That is programmed to not accept your next item until the scanned item is bagged and weighed. So no matter how slick you get, you still need to load the bag. And do load it carefully, the software does seem to be rather picky, shopping every third or fourth item, stopping until one of the assistants nearby come to your rescue, unlock your screen and allow you to continue. Obviously if ASDA and the myriad other retailers jumping on to this bandwagon wanted to provide lots of staff they'd just open more staffed tills. They don't, so you may find the staff sorting out your issues are very busy, so the shopping handbrake is often on more than it is off.
Then there is the tricky issue of alcohol. Go through a staffed till and one glance at me with my grey beard and worn looks suffices, the operator confirms I'm over eighteen (just) and off we go. In the alleged fast lane I need to wait until the overtasked staff member can get to my checkout to confirm that I'm old enough to be her grandfather. And then there's paracetamol; a recent government decided to lower suicide rates by limiting the sale of these popular painkillers to people aged sixteen and over and to a maximum of 32 tablets per pass through the checkouts. They probably anticipated the arrival of the fast lane, as I often think about taking a few packets of tablets after being told off by a computer for putting unauthorised items in the packing area, have tried to scan each item at least five times, and dared to try and buy something alcoholic.
So, you finally get all of your shopping scanned and there is the little issue about payment. Quick tip here, the only quick part of this tale as many other shoppers gave come and gone through the normal lane while you've tried to buy a dozen items using the alleged fast lane. Use a card. Credit, debit, playing, birthday, whatever. Just don't try cash. They take cash, of course, but notes find themselves dragged in and pushed out several times before being accepted. Nowhere near as slick as a till operator taking the tenner out of your hand, reading out that the bill is nine pounds and twenty pence and slipping the eighty pence change into your hand. Once the tenner is accepted by the machine it goes into a trance as it decides on how to pay you back. Then it drops your eighty pence change eventually, advising you that notes are dispensed below the scanner. What - bloody - notes?
So you stagger out of the supermarket with your dozen items. It is now dark ( it was morning when you arrived) and, because you've been parked for more than three hours in the supermarket car park your car is clamped. And because you only popped in for a few items you realise that the one item you needed isn't in your hand. So you turn around and re-enter the store. It's one item, you could afford to try the slow lane for one item. Please.
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