On Self-Scan And Customer Service Paradoxes

While standing in line for a self-scan station at Kroger today, I had a realization: I have to write about the self-scan station at Kroger.  Today.

The self-scan station drives me nuts.  It seems like I’m never there with more than three items but no one else is ever there with less than 20.  I think what really serves to stir the self-serving stew of fail, though, is the combination of people involved with self-scan stations: the customers are completely clueless and the attendant is often adrift, attempting to be anywhere else but the service register.

I get why these stations exist, but I think they severely underestimate the collective stupidity of the human race.  For me, self-scan is a simple sixty second in-and-out procedure.  Swipe the Kroger card, scan the items, select payment method, swipe the card, grab the receipt, OUT.  It doesn’t take long.  At all.  But the zombified masses, man, the other customers are completely clueless.  They don’t know how to scan.  They don’t know how to swipe.  They don’t know that “bananas” are scanned and weighed by pressing the large button with a picture of a bundle of bananas that appropriately reads “bananas.”

Hardly breaking news, but people are really, really stupid.

Today when I got to the self-serve section — which I only use, by the way, because I dread face-to-face interaction with jaded cashiers so much that I actually go out of my way to avoid them — all four stations were occupied and two customers stood waiting for an opening.  At these stations?

Station 1: A couple attempting to scan an entire grocery cart’s worth of purchases.

Station 2: A man who could not figure out how to scan anything and consequentially demanded the attendant’s attention for the duration of his stay.

Station 3: A man needing the occupied attendant’s attention because his case of Stella Artois was not ringing up on sale…perhaps because, as I picked up in the ensuing banter, Stella Artois was not on sale.

Station 4: A woman who insisted on paying her purchase, well over ten dollars, in coins.

The attendant, meanwhile, was clearly in IDGAF territory and more or less just walked away after a few minutes of attempting to complete Station 2’s transaction for No Scan Man.  After she left, there were just four jackasses at self-serve stations, a majority of which did not know how to do anything and just stood clueless in front of the machines looking for someone dressed in a Kroger vest.

All the while, I’m just standing there with two 2-liters and refusing to go to the 10 items or less game on the principle that I hate making small talk with people who hate their jobs enough to hate me for being in front of them making small talk.  It bums me out.  It’s kinda like a midnight Wal-Mart trip I took last year at IU with my roommates…everyone working the graveyard shift was over the age of 70.  They were skeletons.  Seriously.  They could barely lift the bags.  They were tired, their eyes were sunken and you could practically see through to their battered souls.  I’m trying to buy cheap pizza and beer at midnight and some poor grandma is fighting arthritis and a smoker’s cough that is audibly lighting her lungs on fire, and she makes no attempt at eye contact, doesn’t even offer the falsest of smiles, and something about that is simultaneously depressing and terrifying because I’m imagining myself in some hellish future carrying for my failure child’s offspring by holding down a minimum wage graveyard shift catering to the consumerist whims of inebriated college kids.

I get terrible customer service sometimes, I really do.  It’s a venomous, self-perpetuating cycle.  Think about it for a second: Grandma Time gets paid minimum wage to do a terrible job during a timespan where 80 percent of Americans are asleep.  Whether she smiles and belts out showtunes or glares and silently hurls gypsy spells at those in line, she gets paid the same amount of money.  There is no incentive to do anything but the absolute minimum, to expend anything but the minimum amount of effort required to do the job.  Without incentive, and with the burden the working poor already carry, there really isn’t much reason for radiance, no motivation to pretend like indentured clerkitude is any sort of blessing.  So you can understand it from that end…but what is the product of that mentality?  What results from the bare minimum?  Horrible customer service.  No real incentive to separate bleach from baby food or award six cents back to the soccer mom overcharged for rich, chocolately Ovaltine.  In fact, the only incentive that cashier has to do well at all is to avoid being brutalized by that soccer mom whose only power exercises in life come from belittling grocery clerks anyway, and even in that case, it’s likely that Grandma Time has seen so many coupon-clipping savages with shaking fists and throbbing temples that she’s actually grown immune to the sight and is too apathetic to do anything but tiredly refer to them to a customer serve kiosk operated by a clueless 16-year-old who only survives his shift because the stock room reeks of skunk weed.

So basically, in what I call the Wal-Mart model, the miserable employee performs miserable customer service, which labels the supermarket as a miserable place to shop.  But the supermarket is mostly a miserable place to shop because it crafts a miserable environment for its employees and provides them with no incentive whatsoever to perform any customer service beyond the bare minimum required to keep their job.  Employer invests the bare minimum in employee, employee invests the bare minimum in employer.  You get what you pay for from every angle, and there’s a long line regardless.

Another customer service paradox I will never understand is the one where, what, let’s say something like 90 percent of the population has worked a customer service job at one point in their life or another…and yet, so many people treat employees in customer service positions like absolute shit.  Like, in layman’s terms, I can’t imagine the 30-something berating the barista didn’t work at Walgreen’s at some point in her life, or Bluetooth Man rolling his eyes and making a scene at the supermarket didn’t sell tickets at his hometown movie theater’s box office or something.  You would think it would just be an unwritten rule that anyone unfortunate enough to ever hold a customer service position would be sympathetic toward other lowly servants and bite down on their forked tongue, but no, apparently this is not the case at all.  Apparently the memories of handling a register are momentarily repressed or something, I don’t know.  I just always found it to be such an odd paradox that so many people could know what it’s like to work a shit job with shitty customers in your face about stupid things, yet simultaneously be that shitty customer lashing out at someone working a shit job.

Maybe I’m just more conscious or socially-cognoscente than most.  I don’t know.  But I go out of my way to be nice to people working customer service positions.  Not because I fear revolution or spit in my fountain drink, but because I’ve been in their position before and I know how easily one stupid customer can ruin a shift if they slam the counter hard enough, so I specifically try not to be that guy.

I guess the moral of tonight’s story is the moral of most of my stories: people are really, really dumb.  Their stupidity and general sense of entitlement is actually cancerous.  Supermarkets pose paradoxes you never think about until you’re stuck in the self-serve line for 15 minutes because the bar code on the Wheaties box, it turns out, is on the bottom.

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