Karl the Curmudgeon Hates Grocery Self-Check Lines

"Hey, Kid, do you use the self-check lines at the grocery store?" my friend, Karl, asked me recently.

Do I do what? I said, a little confused. Do you mean the arm torture thingy at the pharmacy?

"No, not the blood pressure monitor," he said. "I mean, do you scan your own groceries at the automatic registers, or do you go through the lines with a real human being ringing up the items and putting them in the bags."

Er, sometimes I use self-check, I said, sensing a trap. I'll do that if I'm in a hurry or only have a couple items. It's faster, especially if someone's in front of me with a full cart at the people line.

We were sitting at the bar at First Editions, our favorite literary-themed bar, for a literary reading. I was going to read one of my short stories, and Karl was there to drink and make fun of the people on stage.

"So you're not at all concerned that you're contributing to the unemployment of an actual human being?"

What? Of course, I'm concerned, I protested. Why would you say that?

"You just said you use the self-check line," Karl said.


"So if you use the self-check line, you're contributing to the unemployment of a grocery store employee."

They're not unemployed if they're an employee, I countered. My witty rejoinder could not be easily countered.

"Oh, but they will be," Karl countered easily. "You see, if enough people use the self-check lines, the stores can reduce the number of cashiers by one or two per shift. And if there's not enough other work to do around the store, they'll get laid off."

I gestured at our bartender, Kurt, for two more beers.

"Thank you, Kurt, for your wonderful — and human — service" said Karl. He jerked his thumb in my direction. "If this one had his way, you'd be replaced by a mobile beer robot."

Hey! That's not true. This bar wouldn't even exist if it weren't for Kurt. He's an important part of the experience.

"A-ha!" Karl said triumphantly and a little too loudly. The reader, a former sportswriter from Houston, was doing a poor job explaining why the Houston Astros weren't dirty rotten cheaters for stealing signs during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He stopped, startled from his feeble defense by Karl's "A-ha!" A few of the audience members turned around and shushed us. I pointed at Karl as the culprit.

Karl ignored them and continued: "Just like Kurt, cashiers provide an important service for the grocery store customers."

Well, sure, those groceries won't bag themselves.

"They do more than that, smart guy. For some socially isolated people, like elderly people who live alone, that may be their only social contact for the week. They have someone they can talk to for just a few minutes, and it helps them emotionally."

I suppose that can be pretty important, I agreed. There are a couple cashiers in my local grocery store I've gotten to know a little, and we catch up whenever I go through their line. My wife even has a favorite cashier at our local Aldi's.

"It's also easier to steal from a store at a self-check line," Karl added. "Cashiers help reduce theft."

I've thought the same thing about libraries, I said. It would be so easy to steal a book at the self-check kiosk. This earned a glare from the woman sitting next to me, clearly a librarian. Then she shushed me, like a pro.

"But here's something I'll bet you didn't think of. Let's say you eliminate all the cashiers from the store so you have nothing but self-check lines."

Okay, I said.

"That means the store doesn't have to pay all that overhead, which could be a couple hundred dollars per hour, and a few thousand dollars per day."

I'm with you so far, I said.

"Where do those savings go?" Karl asked, waving his beer mug around. "Do your grocery prices get lowered? Do you get a little discount at the self-check line because you didn't use a human employee?"

I sat for several seconds pondering this. No, I guess not, I finally said.

"So who exactly benefits if you use the self-check line?"

I snapped my fingers. The store! Library Lady shushed me again. They can cut a few employees off the payroll, but don't actually have to lower their prices, so they squeeze out more profit by having us do all the work.

"That's right," said Karl. "The added profits go into their coffers, so what do they care if a few people lose their jobs. All in the name of efficiency and profitability, right?"

So you're saying I should stop going through the self-check line since it actually hurts human employees? I said.

"As much as you can," said Karl.

Kurt set our bill on the bar in front of us. Your turn to pay, I said.

Karl checked his wallet. "I'm out of cash," he said. "I'll be right back, I have to run to the ATM."

Photo credit: Wolfmann (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.