As a work-at-home writer blessed with an extra-supportive spouse, I live a relatively sheltered life far from the crowded aisles and winding check-out lines of the local supermarket. Because grocery shopping is one of my least favorite things, Gary usually handles that task. It’s not only because he likes to be helpful, which he does, but also because he thrives on contact with as many people as possible during the day. I do not.
I confine my grocery shopping ventures to those occasions when he is not available or is not feeling well. Which was the situation on a recent Sunday morning. It was quite early, and I thought that I’d be able to slip in and out quickly to get the few things on my list. That was not to be.
I found the fruits and vegetables I needed, I picked up several things that I did not need, and I got in some daily steps trekking back and forth between the two ends of the store which each held something I was in search of. I crossed everything off my list and headed to the checkout lanes.
You might think that as a card-carrying introvert, I would prefer the self-checkout choice. On one level you would be right. I do like being able to glide quietly through the purchasing process and be on my way. However, experience has taught me that if I have individual fruits or vegetables that will need keying in and/or weighing, something untoward will happen at the register.
Invariably a much more public, chaotic and time-consuming event occurs than would have, had I left the checking out to the professionals. So, I usually choose to stand in a pleasant stupor as someone with quicker fingers and better hand/eye coordination than I have whizzes through my items and bags them, and my only responsibility is to present payment.
I did not have that option on the Sunday morning in question. Not only was there no cashier on duty in any of the regular lines, but every self-checkout register was also in use. And almost everyone in line had full carts. I felt a short-lived surge of happiness when I spied a woman who was in the final stages of making her payment. I scurried in behind her, only to realize that she was not paying, she was staring in puzzlement at the screen and holding in her hand what looked to be coupons that were not processing correctly. I noticed then the red light flashing and her husband trying to flag down a store clerk.
I pulled out of line and spotted a register with only one woman checking out, and her cart was almost empty. However, it turned out that she preferred to run a few things through the register, then pause to bag them. And she was a meticulous bagger of items. She considered each gravely before determining which of her bags should hold it. The minutes ticked by and I was rapidly approaching my maximum tolerance for shopping. Impatient, I pulled out of line and prowled up and down the rows, trying to gauge the best place to jump in. Finally, I settled in behind a man who had a lot of groceries but appeared to be as eager as me to get the job done and get out.
By now my twenty-minute trip to the store had already stretched to fifty minutes. When my turn at the register came, I shot forward. Immediately I began thrusting the bar-coded items at the screen and sending them hurtling down the belt. The faster things progressed, the more my spirits lifted. I was almost done. Then came the dreaded produce. I grabbed the zucchini with determination. I scanned it in. I put it on the scale for weighing. I placed it on the belt. The machine announced an unexpected item on the belt. I took it off. I put it back. The message continued. The red light began to flash overhead, announcing to the world that I stood at the register of shame.
A clerk arrived. She fixed it. She left. I tried my next item, a red pepper. I scanned it. I weighed it. I put it on the belt. The unexpected item on the belt message returned. I touched a few things on the screen, shifted the pepper on and off the belt, glanced apologetically at the growing line-up behind me, but again the red light overhead flashed. The clerk returned. Trying to learn from my mistakes, I asked where I had gone wrong. She listed the proper check-out steps. I told her that’s what I’d done. She looked at me with weary skepticism, fixed the issue and left.
I keyed in the last item—an onion. I weighed it, put it on the belt and when a negative message didn’t pop up immediately, I hastily slid my credit card into the processor, removed it when it buzzed and prepared for escape. But instead of my receipt, a new message appeared, informing me that I had committed a serious error. The red light went off again.
My clerk—we had been together long enough that I had begun to think of her as “my” clerk—was at my side almost as soon as the red bat signal flashed. Her expression plainly said that she was disappointed in me. By using my card—which I’d like to add, the card reader had eagerly accepted, until it turned on me—before the produce problem was addressed, I had caused a more difficult issue to resolve than usual.
She got a slip to print, but she noted that the single onion appeared to have cost $3.49. The price for three pounds of onions was $1.99. Obviously, my lone onion did not weigh in at more than five pounds. But, because of the invisible line I’d crossed, her options to help me were limited. She could cancel out the order, and I could start over—clearly, neither she nor I wanted that. Or I could go back to produce and pick up additional onions.
I wanted only a quick escape. I assured her that I didn’t care how much the onion cost. I was happy to pay 3.49 if it would free me from my Groundhog Day checkout experience. I quickly shoved my purchases into a bag, gently pulled the receipt from her hand, thanked her and left with my overpriced onion. She was taken aback by my casual disregard for the excess onion cost. But to me, freedom has always been priceless.