Check It Out

Back when I lived in Southern California, I used to spend a lot of time around the boat harbors. One of my favorite pastimes was sitting in a cappuccino shop overlooking the boat launch ramp, watching novices try to put their small boats in the water. Their first problem was figuring out how to make a 90-degree turn while backing up towing a boat trailer. There aren’t a lot of places to practice this maneuver before coming to the harbor. And whatever friends the driver may have brought along for the boat ride probably had less boat-launching experience than he did.

I actually witnessed the worst case scenario one Saturday when the trailer and the car wound up rolling into the drink. Fortunately, a Good Samaritan dove in and rescued the driver before the submerged car completely filled with water. Then, of course, came the added entertainment of watching a tow-truck driver try to figure out how to pull a submerged car and trailer back onto dry land.

Since moving to México, I haven’t been able to pursue this pastime, probably because none of my favorite cappuccino shops are near a boat launching ramp. But I may just have found a similar opportunity during a recent visit to Walmart.

I had popped in to buy a few groceries, and it wasn’t until I headed to the checkout counters that I realized I’d picked the worst day of the year for going to Walmart. It was the third Monday in November, Mexican Revolution Day. Worse yet, it was the last day of the weekend that Mexicans call “Buen Fin,” or the “good weekend.”  It is the Mexican equivalent of “Black Friday” and the busiest shopping day of the year. Even with five checkout clerks working, there were lines stretching halfway to the back of the store.

So here I was, faced with the choice of mile-long lines of people pushing overloaded shopping carts, or the relatively short line waiting to use the self-checkout machines. I had never used them before, not even back in the States. I’ve always been a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal when it comes to adopting new technology. I didn’t know if the machines accepted cash, or if I would have to use a credit card. My only experience paying cash to an automated machine in México was in the parking lot of the Guadalajara airport. And those machines typically rejected half the bills in my wallet for one reason or another. Bill is too wrinkled. Bill is not wrinkled enough. Bill is acceptable only during months containing the letter “r.”  It was always a crapshoot as to whether I had enough acceptable bills in my wallet to get my car out of hock.

And the prospect of using my credit card was fraught with potential problems. I never use it down here. As far as MasterCard knows, I’m still living in Southern California. If they suddenly see my card being used in a small village in the boondocks of México, they will probably block it as a suspicious transaction. Also, if I use my card down here, my bank charges me a Foreign Transaction Fee. So there were a million reasons I shouldn’t use the self-checkout machines. But I’d be damned if I was going to wait in a mile-long line to buy a half-dozen groceries. I took the plunge.

As I was waiting in the self-checkout line, I spotted an American couple I knew who were already using one of the machines. But it didn’t look very reassuring. They would scan a few items, and then have to call over the checkout assistant. She would come, punch a few buttons, take the items they thought they had scanned out of the bag, and scan them again. This dance went on four times before they reached the payment stage. I later learned that they had used the machines before, but always paid with cash. For some reason this machine accepted only credit card transactions. That triggered another desperate call for assistance. I knew these people well. The husband had worked 25 years as the director of information technology for a major company. If he was having trouble, I was toast.

I had also been watching an American woman at another machine scanning a full cartload of groceries with no apparent problems. She had obviously done this before. So when my turn came, I took the machine next to hers. I hoped she might be my Good Samaritan and dive in if I wound up out of my depth. Fortunately, my machine offered a choice of languages for reading the instructions. There being no option for Neanderthal, I settled for English. I hoped this would be better than the typical ATM machine that asks you 20 questions before telling you the machine is out of money.

A screen came up saying I should begin scanning the bar codes on each of the products I was buying, and then place them on the large scale that apparently kept track of the purchases. Although I’m sure Walmart considered the instructions idiot-proof, they didn’t tell this idiot where to find the bar codes on each product.

My first item was a six-pack of bottled beer. I carefully examined all four sides of the carton and found no bar code. But I noticed that each of the bottles had a bar code on its label. So I took out a bottle, held it up to the scanner and placed it on the scale. A message appeared telling me that the system did not recognize that product code. So I picked up the bottle to put it back in the carton. “Buzz-z-z!”  Suddenly everybody was looking at me. Even my prospective Good Samaritan gave me the stink eye. Clearly she wasn’t going to rescue me. I was going to have to sink or swim on my own.

It turns out that removing an item from the scale before completion of the transaction was one of the machine’s little “no, no’s.” An irritated checkout assistant reluctantly came to my station. She didn’t say a word. She punched some buttons erasing my mistake. She then grabbed the six-pack out of my hand and laid it on its side with the bottom pointed toward the scanner. Who would have thought you’d have to risk dumping all the bottles so you could scan the code printed on the bottom of the carton?

Things went better as I scanned the carton of milk, the bottle of orange juice and the pound of butter. But my final item, a bag of potato chips, was less cooperative. I had to keep flattening the cellophane bag until I got all the wrinkles out of the bar code. By the time I got it to work, half my chips had been squished.

It was now time to pay the piper. But just then, I could see that the Good Samaritan had run into a problem of her own. Although she had successfully scanned a mountain of groceries, when it came time to pay, the machine froze up. A circular arrow just kept spinning on the screen. The checkout assistant came and pressed a bunch of buttons. But the arrow just kept spinning. The clerk called over the supervising checkout assistant. That’s never a good sign. The supervisor inserted her magic key into the machine and started punching buttons. But alas, the circular arrow just kept chasing its tail. Finally, the supervisor decided all she could do was take the machine out of service. She told the lady that she would have to put her whole pile of groceries back into her cart and either take her chances on another machine, or get into the mile-long line for a human checkout clerk. Disgusted with automation, she opted for the line. To me, the message was clear. Experience didn’t matter. Like the machines at the airport, the self-checkout machines were a bit of a crapshoot. And the Good Samaritan had just crapped out.

It was now my turn to roll the dice. Would my machine fall victim to the circular spinning arrow? Would my American bank reject the card? Worse yet, would the machine set off an alarm and swallow my suspicious card? 

I held my breath as I inserted the card. Oh God, the circular spinning arrow appeared. But only for a few seconds. Then a screen appeared asking for my signature. I had dodged the arrow. All I had to do now was sign my name. How hard could that be? Then I realized the signature screen was mounted vertically. Aside from graffiti artists, nobody knows how to sign their name on a vertical surface. Worse yet, I had to do this using nothing but my fat finger. I couldn’t imagine MasterCard would accept that squiggly smudge as my legal signature. Oh well, at least the machine accepted it.

If Walmart ever decides to put in a cappuccino shop, I suggest they put it overlooking the self-checkout area. There would be endless hours of entertainment watching to see how many Neanderthals it takes to scan a six-pack of beer. But as I was leaving the store, I saw a row of cars lined up at the loading area. The parade was being held up by a lady trying to figure out how to squeeze a 70–inch flat screen TV into her sub-compact car. Come to think of it, the loading area might be a better location for that cappuccino shop.

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Larry Kolczak
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