Bag your own: service without a smile

A LARGE SIGN hanging above a new checkout lane at Shaw's supermarket in Braintree, Mass., tells a story of modern innovation.

"Self Checkout," the sign announces. "Scan, Bag & Pay on Your Own. 15 Items or Less. It's Quick and Easy!"

No more waiting in line just to buy a carton of milk. Now customers can play cashier and bagger themselves as supermarkets around the country install these devices. Already, about half of Shaw's 186 stores offer self-serve lanes, according to spokesman Bernard Rogan.

From ATMs and pump-your-own gas to self-service check-in kiosks at airports, the trend is clear: Simplify, simplify, and cut out the sales clerk or cashier.

Some of these inventions represent progress. What would a 21st-century world do, for example, without ATMs, those ubiquitous self-serve banks that keep wallets flush with cash, anytime, anywhere? Similarly, cybershoppers can enjoy nonstop access via computer to every imaginable purchase from the comfort of home. Look, Ma, no clerks.

One of the best self-service options exists in hotels. Allowing guests to carry their own bags means there's no more need to follow a bellhop to the room. And no more awkward moments as he turns on lights and the TV while a guest fumbles for a tip. Oh, freedom!

But there are trade-offs, too. Sometimes, when I'm pumping my own gas, unscrewing the cap and clutching the nozzle, I think of my grandfather. He owned several gas stations when I was growing up, and his attendants, like others at the time, filled the tank, washed the windshield, and checked the oil and water.

What, I wonder with a laugh, would he think about today's customers, his three granddaughters among them, serving themselves? I can almost hear him harrumphing in disapproval. He believed service was important.

But customs and attitudes have changed.

At Shaw's, I test the self-service checkout counter by buying two cans of cat food and a bottle of sparkling water. Scanning the bar codes is easy. But the water rings up at 89 cents instead of the advertised sale price of 69 cents. A cashier explains how to scan a customer card to get the discount. The total is $1.90. I insert a $10 bill, and the machine spits out $8.10 in change. Success! Even so, unless I'm in a hurry, I'll stick with the regular line.

Mr. Rogan insists that supermarkets will always employ cashiers. "The last and the best encounter with our customers is at the checkout," he says. "Customer service is an art that we try to practice."

He also offers a cautionary tale to service-oriented businesses tempted to forget their mission. "Banks have gotten themselves into deep trouble in thinking ATMs are going to replace customer relationships," he says. "What banks typically had was excellent customer rapport." Now, some are retraining employees to polish those rusty skills.

In another encouraging sign, our suburban gas station recently began offering full service at self-serve prices. What a treat to sit in the car, warm and dry, as the attendant fills the tank and washes the windows. We exchange pleasantries as he takes my money, and his friendly smile and courteous manner linger in my thoughts as I leave.

An automated world has advantages. But the hunger for personal connections runs deep. Take away too many such opportunities, even at the most casual, mundane level among strangers, and the world becomes a chillier, more impersonal place. Rogan sums up the need this way: "You can walk through an entire store and not have an encounter with someone, and then you finally encounter a cheery person at the checkout. It can make your day."

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