Monday, March 12, 2012

Is Politics Driving Idiotic Self-Checkout Laws?

As I have posted before over on the SV Foodies blog, I like self checkout. I'm one of those customers who really doesn't want to chat in line. I find the self checkout UI interesting. And most of the time, I can get in and through the line faster in self checkout. But as of January 1, some new laws took effect that have handicapped the convenience of self checkout, made me question the logic of the law's sponsors, and also sparked this post.

Perhaps, like me, you only learned about the law banning the sale of alcohol at self-checkouts right before it went into effect around the beginning of the year. At the time, I remember thinking to myself that this is one of the dumbest laws that I've seen. Mind you, back in the Bible-belt South, it's not unusual for the 'morally minded' to use stupid laws to drive their cultural agenda, but few California residents can probably image a state with 'dry counties' or limiting alcoholic beverage sales on Sunday. So when I was signs announcing that this new restriction was taking effect, I assumed that it was legislation crafted by some misdirected, morally minded, overprotective technophobe. It turns out I was wrong.

Unexpected Item In Bagging Area
Anyone who has struggled with a self checkout system knows that the experience has the potential to be extremely frustrating. Self checkout systems freak out all of the time. Anyone who has used one of the systems is probably familiar with the "unexpected item" siren. Self checkout systems don't allow you to ignore store rules; instead, they get caught up on more exceptions than any human checker. If a price doesn't scan, human staff often simply key the item in as a generic grocery item and move forward. Self check out triggers the alert sirens and leaves you standing around waiting for a clerk to reset the system while you fidget about with people thinking that you were trying to steal from the store. Or that you just suck at using simple electronics.

This is why most of us who have used self checkout know that "the purpose of this law is to block an access point for underage drinkers to alcohol" is complete and utter bullshit.

I have three rules which I followed (prior to this law):
  1. Avoid purchasing alcohol unless there is a clerk nearby and I am don't mind waiting
  2. Avoid purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables and particularly things that might require the clerk
  3. Avoid using self checkout on the weekends when families with kids or inexperienced users decide to 'try the system out'
The Engine Behind This BS
As I noted earlier, this legislation went complete under the radar for me as I imagine that it did for most of us. In the past, you might have expected this type of law to be the result of a real life incident -- people dying from taking an over-the-counter 'weight loss substance' or something -- so when I did some research and turned over the rock on the self checkout law, I was surprised when I didn't find something like that. Instead, this one seems like another example of lobbying interests driving legislation for special interests with little regard for the society at large.

First a couple of links so that you can see the history:

Some noteworthy aspects that I learned from these pieces:
  • This wasn't the first attempt to push this legislation through. There were also attempts in 2008 and 2010.
  • It appears that the bill was driven largely by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
  • Fresh and Easy is all self checkout and often targets food deserts -- I may have to check one out
  • As governor, Schwarzenegger shot this bill down saying, "It is unclear what problem this bill seeks to address." That means that Brown signed off on this, and I really would have expected better from him. While I don't think that this would be a deal breaker in terms of me voting for him, given the opportunity to confront him on the issue, I would ask for an explanation. 
  • California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, the Democrats in the Assembly that voted for this law, and Governor Brown all get nominated for my anti-innovation award for the year. What next? Do I need to card everyone that I charge on Square because it might be an alcohol purchase? Do I need to have a UFCW cashier ring up the transaction?
While the anti-innovation forces want to stifle self-checkout, What they overlook is that consumers like using these systems. Sure, sometimes it's slower, but it eliminates other potential frustrations in the transaction process, frustrations often created by poor customer service models. When a checker at Safeway asks about my day, am I really supposed to believe that they have any more interest in my day than the other ten people in line behind me? And if I'm number eight in line, do I really benefit from the "personalized" service that that person is receiving? For that matter, at Walmart or Target where they collect a ton of personal data and probably could access all of your personal transaction records in order to change your 'checkout' experience, would 'personalizing' it make you feel more connected to the big box store -- or just creeped out?

Piling On: How San Jose's Bag Ordinance Is Impacting Self Checkout
While San Jose probably was more focused on the environmental impact of plastic bags, the no bag ordinance is a blow to self checkout systems. Similar to the system's inability to correctly handle paper bags, the delicate scales on these systems aren't designed to calibrate to a customer-supplied bag. This means stacking and bagging after the transaction and, in most cases, an overall slow-down in processing a self checkout transaction. It will be interesting to see how stores handle no bags and the self checkout systems going forward as San Jose is probably not the last city to push a no bags ordinance through.