There used to be a time when the biggest delay in the checkout line at a grocery store or convenience store would be caused by a (stereotypical) little, old lady fishing through her change purse for the exact amount of coinage.
Well, people — women and men today — still fish for change in their purses in checkout lines, if they are paying with cash. But fewer and fewer people are choosing the cash option, opting instead for debit and credit cards.
So, there I was — pressed for time — at the local convenience store/gas station on one particular day, standing in line behind five or so people, waiting to pay for the gas I had just pumped into my car.
It would be a long wait. Each person in front of me paid for their gas and assorted products with a debit card or credit card. Each inserted their card in a card reader, tapped in their password, and waited for the receipt to emerge. You know the drill, I’m sure. And you probably know that sometimes the transactions don’t go through on the first attempt, and the customer has to go through the process a second or even third time.
This particular store also has its own card, which gives you points with every purchase. So, there’s another card reader for that one . . .
You all know where I am going with this, i.e. nowhere in a hurry. (I paid with cash.)
In what could be described as a light-bulb moment while waiting, it occurred to me that we as customers are being penalized for wanting personal service with humans, rather than machines. I could have paid for my gas at the pump with a credit or debit card, and driven away without stepping foot in the store. But I don’t trust that payment method. And besides, if I want my store points — which translate into free gas for me every once in a while — I have to go to the counter in the store and pass my card through a reader.
It’s a trend happening more and more in the retail world, including in banks. My bank branch — a small one in a small town — has two ATM machines and, at most, two tellers working at the same time, but usually only one.
It may be a small town, but it’s the only bank so it is often quite busy. Yes, I do use the ATMs for cash, usually waiting in line first. But I have to do a transaction every week with a teller — on my way to work — which often means standing in line for 5 to 10 or even 15 minutes. And then, yup, I have to put gas in my car at the aforementioned convenience store.
Oh, and if I dash into the local grocery store — which is in the same strip mall as the bank — for something to take to work before putting gas in my car, there’s the (stereotypical) little, old lady with the change purse and a host of others fumbling around with credit and debit cards in the checkout line ahead of me.
You get the point. The move to automated checkout processes in the retail industry doesn’t always translate into time savings for customers. In fact, it can be the opposite. They can cost us more time that they might have when people paid with cash and stores and banks had more counter people.
Still, the impersonal service of ordering things online has its good points, too. I like that I can order something from, say, Amazon and it is delivered to my (country) mail box within days. But Amazon can’t put gas in my car, can they?
Photo: Checkout line in Israel, circa 1965. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)