Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Check it out - humans are obsolete

DIY groceries at the self-serve. Photo / Sarah Ivey
DIY groceries at the self-serve. Photo / Sarah Ivey

My supermarket has enhanced my customer experience by reducing its services even further by introducing self-scan checkouts.

The person at the cash register is gradually being eased out.

By rights, shoppers choosing the self-scan option should get a discount, because they are doing a job some Luddite lollygaggers still expect someone else to do for them.

But that won't be happening because every change a supermarket makes is about saving its owners money. I have been saving my supermarket money in all sorts of inventive ways over the years.

I saved it money when it stopped employing butchers and started selling meat only in 500g or 1kg lots prepared offsite.

I saved it money when I put up with it reducing its staffing rate to the point where waiting to pay for my groceries always takes longer than selecting them.

I realised how far the rot had set in the day I wanted to buy a funnel. After a few fruitless minutes failing to find one, I sought out a human.

"Can you tell me where I might find a funnel?"

"Um, I think maybe two aisles over there."

"No, I've looked there. No funnels. Is there somewhere else they could be?"

"Umm ... "

"You don't know what a funnel is, do you?"


So a staff training budget obviously wasn't adding a lot to the running costs.

I later found out the supermarket didn't sell funnels. In fact, its inventory is on the niggardly side.

Some of us continue to go to this supermarket only because we like the few people who still work there. If we're not going to have anything to do with them, we might as well go to a store that complements the latest technology with a decent selection of goods.

The self-scan facility is thus false economy.

And any supermarket owner will tell you, for a sizeable number of people - especially elderly people - a daily supermarket visit is an opportunity to interact with others. Not for much longer and not just with supermarkets.

For most of us a bank is now a rectangle set into the wall and a call centre.

Branches into which customers can walk and do banking will soon be a thing of the past.

Wherever possible, humans are being phased out of daily commerce.

In this process we lose something intangible and irreplaceable.

Those innocuous exchanges with people we see in supermarkets and banks are one of the little things that make daily life pleasant.

The people who work in the banks and supermarkets are more than collectors of money and dispensers of change; they are strands in the rope that holds a community together.

Just when you think facts and reason are gaining the upper hand in the war on superstition, up pops somebody who claims to talk to invisible dead people having his babbling taken seriously in a reputable newspaper.

At least when someone claims to talk to the dead you can judge his claims on their non-existent merits.

However, when the Wellington SPCA moves into an old hospital that is rumoured to be "haunted" and this suggestion is put to its chief executive, you hope someone in such a responsible position will mock such silliness.

You don't expect to hear him say with a straight face, as Iain Torrance did this week: "We've had it blessed and apparently all the spirits have gone but we will be having a psychic medium come through later on in the year."

- Herald on Sunday

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