To Boldly Go

“Good afternoon, sir,” the grocery store clerk says as I enter the supermarket. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” I reply. Thinking the guy’s trying to sell me something I try maneuvering my shopping cart around him. That’s not so easy. The cart has a faulty wheel. I always get the screwed up carts.

“We’re introducing a new computer system here at Quick Shop,” the clerk continues, pretending not to notice my evasive maneuver. “Would you like to participate in our pilot program?”

“Pilot program?”

“We’re trying to make shopping at Quick Shop a more efficient and pleasant experience,” the man says, producing a handheld device that looks like a weapon from the future. “With this scanner you can scan the bar codes of the items you’re purchasing and the computer will add up your bill, deduct coupons, and ring you up when you’re finished.”

“Really?” I reply, intrigued. “It does all that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do I have to use the self-checkout lane?” I ask. “I hate that lane. The computer always screws up, you have to wait for a clerk to rescue you – I prefer a human being at the register. “

“I understand, sir,” the clerk replies. “The self-checkout lane’s not the best experience. But we’re trying to change that. After you fill the handheld with your purchases you just point the device at the register and it automatically tabulates your bill. All you have to do is pay, bag, and leave.”

“Is it really that easy?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out sir. Will you help us?”

Far be it for me to stand in the way of progress. “Sure,” I reply. “Why not?”

After a brief tutorial the clerk slips the handheld scanner into the convenient holder that’s been clipped to the handle of my shopping cart. “Have fun, sir,” the clerk says. “And thanks for participating in our pilot program.”

“No problem.”

“When you’re done let me know how it went.”

“Will do.”

I leave the clerk behind and start shopping. My first stop’s the produce aisle. I pick out several apples, weigh them, scan the SKU on the produce table, and enter the weight into the handheld. The little computer neatly adds up my bill. Very cool. I move on to the coffee aisle, run the dancing red laser light over a can of java, and drop it into my cart. Presto chango, the device adds everything up. Now I have a running tally of my purchases. I could get used to this.

As I travel down the aisles I smile to myself. I saw the new Star Trek movie last night and I can’t get over how much the world is becoming more like that fictional universe everyday. As I hold the handheld scanner in my hand I realize where I’ve seen it before. It looks like a phaser from one of the Trek television shows. Hmmm.

It’s been often said, but how many devices did we see on Star Trek that are realities today? Dr. McCoy used to wave a wand over his patients and accurately diagnose illnesses, usually saying, “This man is dead, Jim.” When I went to get a ultrasound of my gallbladder the technician basically did the same thing, albeit with a bigger kind of device. Thank God she didn’t say what Bones usually did. (Is it just me or was Doctor McCoy’s patient morbidity rate kind of high?) And look at all the CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs we’ve got today. Even my MD inputs my height, weight, blood pressure, and prescriptions into into a tablet computer. Star Trekkin at the doctor’s office

But it’s also everyday items that are coming closer to the Star Trek ideal. When I was watching the movie the communicators the Starfleet officers flipped open looked exactly like the cellphones the teenagers in the audience were texting each other on. And when I saw the product placements for Nokia I had to restrain a chuckle. Will there still be straightjacket service contracts in in the 23rd Century? Probably. Cellular companies are worse than the Klingons.

As I’m scanning cans of tuna the iPhone clipped to my hip starts to vibrate. I glance down and see I’ve gotten an email from someone on the other side of the world. I unclip the phone and thumb a quick reply. When I was small the only way to talk to someone in Malaysia was an expensive long distance call or a letter. What a brave new world we live in.

As I return the iPhone to my belt I realize Apple’s wonder product is probably a technological precursor to the tricorder of Star Trek fame. You remember the tricorder. That was the device Spock was always carrying around. It told him when miniskirted life forms were approaching, described the topography of alien worlds, and usually saved Captain Kirk’s ass. My phone, and other devices like it, are approaching that level of sophistication. Now I can pinpoint my location on the earth, take snapshots of miniskirted Terrans, and find out where to get good Thai food. Scanning for Lard Nar, Captain.

Saving the perishable items for last, I roll my rattling cart over to the meat counter. As I’m looking through the steaks I notice a babushka type lady poking her fingers into packets of hamburger. I have eaten animal flesh and have enjoyed it. Man, this lady’s not only rude, she’s gross. When she bends down to poke more cow parts I take the handheld scanner and zap it at her ample behind, As the laser light flickers across her ass I’m deeply disappointed. The meat molester doesn’t disintegrate into her constituent atomic particles. Damn.

I leave the beef fetishist behind and finish my shopping. When I get to the counter to ring up my purchases the whole process goes off without a hitch. Even though I know the system is designed to replace humans who need pesky things like paychecks and health benefits, I’m impressed with how easy the whole process was. As I’m leaving the store the clerk I talked to earlier comes up to me.

“So how’d everything go, sir?”

“Everything was fine,” I reply. “Except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“My phaser didn’t disintegrate the woman sticking her finger in the hamburger meat.”

The clerk smiles. “Our phasers are only set to stun.”

“With some of the customers around here? They should be set to vaporize.”

The clerk rolls his eyes. “Tell me about it.”


Comments

To Boldly Go — 73 Comments

  1. There’s a documentary called “How William Shatner Changed the World” that’s basically all sorts of technology that seems to have arisen from Star Trek. It’s goofy, as its title implies, but still pretty interesting.

  2. No thanks, I already do enough work without scanning my own stuff at the store. And yeah, real people need jobs, and not everyone is capable of creating high tech devices to steal more jobs.

  3. Ah, how I miss the self scanners. They’ve had them in Waitrose supermarkets in the UK for several years now and they definitely made shopping more fun. I’m not joking when I say leaving them behind was one of the harder parts of moving overseas.

    What I’m waiting for is the scanner they have in Star Trek where they can wave it over you and diagnose ANYTHING, not just what they are specifically looking for then. As someone with unspecific health issues that would be very useful.

  4. Holy crap, you’re funny. I like the idea of the running total scanner thingy. I could use more staff wandering around the store to answer my questions. Maybe we could reassign some of the cashiers to that job?

  5. Iphone strapped to your belt? Steve, that’s seriously uncool. Add a swiss army knife and you can join the boy scouts :)

  6. I work at a store that has the equipment described here.

    Strangely enough, the scanning devices have not eliminated jobs. We now have to MONITOR the customers, to make sure that they a) use the scanners correctly, and b) don’t try to steal from the store.

    It’s not as much fun as scanning the groceries for the customers, the way we used to. But the scanners have not eliminated jobs, just changed what the job involves.

    And the customer always has the option of choosing to not use the scanner. Most customers opt out.

    (While monitoring the system, I am now more free to answer customer questions. The number one question, of course, is “Where are your restrooms?”)

  7. This sounds like great fun but how do they know you are scanning everything? Oh, I just looked at the last comment and saw there are montior people. That makes sense.
    This sounds fun. I like technology, although I’ve never seen Star Trek. Maybe I should.

  8. Gah! I knew this day would come. I refuse to do the self-check-out. (I’m perfectly fine, thank you.) I don’t want to do this, either. Not that it will matter…

  9. This entry was witty, amusing, and a great read! The Star Trek analogies really do work for today’s gadgets.

    Nice blog. I was directed here from my blogging class (this blog was used as an example of an effectively designed blog). :)

  10. Oh I love the idea of the scanner. I am a self check out person. I bring my own bags and do everything myself. The cashiers are mostly rude or have conversations going with another cashier. Till they come across some produce you have that they don’t know what it is, then they ask (without looking at you) what dis? Then they have to look it up and try to type in a code with 3 inch long, crazy painted, fingernails. No thank you. I would rather do it myself.

  11. Man, I wish they had this at my local grocery store.

    I feel like you should have to pass some kind of anti-idiot-test before you’re allowed to enter any kind of retail store.

  12. I have done some self-checkout at Tesco and Waitrose, in the UK. I like self-checkout. It’s quicker, I can skip the queue of people afraid of self-checkout, and if I mess it up and something doesn’t get scanned, I either get free food or can blame the machine! That rarely happens, though — as others have said, the guys wandering around ‘help’ you rescan things that apparently failed the first time. It does seem pretty pointless in the end, but I guess if the guy is on-the-ball, he can help 5 people who are checking themselves out at once, rather than needing five employees to check them all out simultaneously otherwise.

  13. Personally, I think you should get a discount if you use those scanners OR the self check-out lane, as you are doing the work of the cashiers, and thus saving the store money. Not to mention causing some poor high school kid to lose his job.

  14. No sign of these in the supermarkets of SW Virginia, but I use the self-checkouts plenty. There are quite a lot of older people here who are lonely and like to dawdle, talking to the cashiers and baggers. If I’m in a hurry or not buying much, I’d rather check out myself than to get frustrated behind the older people or to make them feel guilty for holding me up.
    Anyone else born around 1960 who remembers the old Tomorrow Land at Disney World?

  15. Sounds pretty good to me. I could watch my total and stick to my budget better. I wonder though how it would hurt the economy. Right now I stick to a budget but always seem to buy a few extra treats. (We’re a family of four so I’m a once a week, plan your meals type gal.) With a running total I would be more inclined to put the extras back.

  16. I would think this would end up costing them- because once you see how much you have spent thus far you may stop shopping and check out!
    (+:

  17. A lot of the grocery stores around here are doing the same with the phasers; it would make shopping quicker and easier except for all the people trying to use the same check out lane at the same time.

    To answer your question though we owe a lot of our modern day conveniences to the original Star Trek. Flip open cell phones were the first widely marketed items designed to directly imitate the communications device of Star Trek. Remember how long “the brick” phone lasted?

    Transporter technology is in the works and has actually been done back in the late 1960′s. Once we figured out how to tag specific atoms so they could be tracked, scientists transported a single atom a distance of three feet. It sucked up too much energy though and that problem needs to be fixed first.

    We even owe teflon and velcrow to our modern day space program.

  18. I am ALL about the scanner! I hope it comes to my area soon. I especially like the idea of a running total. I’m sure people will stop shopping when they see how much they have spent – certainly a nicer experience than having to put things back when you are short. :)

    HHaving said that, it kinda makes me sad that this is just one more thing leading us toward a less social society. Like another person said above, many of the cashiers I deal with are not vvery friendly, but most of them are! And, as ssocial creatures, we need those little interactions in my opinion.

  19. I loved YOUR product placement, “As I’m scanning cans of tuna the iPhone clipped to my hip starts to vibrate.”

    Are you now on Apple’s payroll?

    I’m waiting for you to add, “And I do all my writing on the new 17-inch MacBook Pro, complete with Multi-Touch trackpad for precise cursor control; supports two-finger scrolling, pinch, rotate, three-finger swipe, four-finger swipe, tap, double-tap, and drag capabilities.”

  20. I like both – if I’m in a hurry, it’s the self-checkout lane. If I’ve got time, I’ll go through a regular lane. Since I go to the same markets, you get to know the clerks and exchange some small pleasantries. I must be way lucky; no rude clerks where I shop. They’re all very helpful and for the most part, cheery. I agree that today’s society seems to be leaning away from socializing, but hey, the future don’t look so bad if it looks anything like the Star Treks. Very well written post – thanks, Steve.

  21. Funny post and the scanner sounds convenient but I work at a library and scan things all day. Please don’t ask me to scan items while I’m shopping.

  22. About a year ago I was looking at an iPhone and realized the most unrealistic thing about Star Trek Communicators is that they don’t do video.

  23. thank you, as a fellow trekkie, for NOT doing a spoiler about the new movie, since i am just making it to the theater with my mother (belated mothers day present to us both) and would have hated to read about it before i see it!…oh…and i work retail, and our inventory scanners are JUST like the phaser…sadly, they do not vaporize irritating customers either *sigh*

  24. i still do a double take when someone on the other side of the world makes a reference to Malaysia. (that’s where i’m from) Most people can tell you where Singapore is but have no clue Malaysia exists. haha.
    Twas a good read man. This is officially my fav blog.

  25. wahaha, melisa, i’m from Malaysia too, and this is always one of my first few reads of the day. Too bad we don’t have much automation here, although i think they won’t last too long due to lack of maintenance expertise of the automation machinery :P

  26. Some of the Albertsons in Dallas tested that a few years ago and then stopped the program. Maybe it’s perfected now.

  27. As a cashier, I can tell you folks that the self-checkout lanes aren’t here to save the company money, it’s because no one wants to work for minimal wage.

    There are several fast food places near our store and they hire at a higher rate.

    What’s the point of coming to a grocery store and making minimal wage when you can start out higher?

    On average, the cost of the self-checkout lanes are $125,000.00, EACH. How many people do you think that amount of money would be used to hiring/training/keeping a real person? It sure isn’t ONE person/lane. And we’re not even talking about maintenance. So, no, self-checkouts are NOT a cost saving measure.

    I’ve been working long enough that the chain I work at has had two types of self-checkouts. The first ones lasted about 8 years.

    I can tell you the most common error made is with the scale. Since the majority of the units have a weight scale down with the bags, it’s easy to foul it up. Once you’ve set your item down, leave it there. Don’t have it leaning onto the back or side of the bag stand.

    Keep your kids off the machine, no hands. This is very hard and I know it. Most of them want to help or hold the item you purchased.

    I could go on and on.

    If you want help, just ask, we really can give you pointers on how to make using the self-checkouts easier.

  28. I just finished reading your book and i ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT.

    This is my first time on the site tho and i must say that i’m surprised that you own an iphone :P

  29. I shop by putting everything that I want in the cart and then putting things back if I see a better price or change my mind. I’d still be scanning everything in at once with the hand held, so it would take the same time, only be less efficient without the table and the clerk to manage the items.

    I want the old days to come back when the goods were behind the counter and clerks would get things for the customers.

    When I was working in a grocery store, and I would get customers who had special requests, it would make me so happy. Unfortunately in the modern business model there is only time for a few of these customers before you start to get behind in your regular work. Too bad they don’t hire more people and give better service in grocery stores.

  30. I refuse to use the self checkout lanes, and now my fav Home Depot has cut down to one checker, trying to force people over to self check. But on the other hand, last supermarket run I picked out three kinds of apples, and the checker put in the wrong code for all three (I watched the names coming up). So perhaps doing it myself might be more accurate.

  31. we have that scanners too. i love using them when i do my grocery. i also bring my reusable bags to i put everything in as i go along. makes everything very efficient. i just love technology!

    and ur right, our gadgets today are akin to those we see in scifi movies before. so cool to live in this world :)

  32. phasers set to Vaporize.. I am looking forward to this new device coming to my store. I bet my son will be too once he knows about this.

    there is a blogging class? sheesh.

  33. “…real people need jobs, and not everyone is capable of creating high tech devices to steal more jobs.”

    And, yet, we no longer see as many court jesters, telephone operators, the guys standing in the caboose that waved at you as a kid, boiler room clerks making entries into ledgers, or letter carriers. Society has always adjusted and will continue to do so.

    Plus, there are more than enough people out there creating high-tech jobs. There are many people in my field who are out-of-work and ready to take the first job that comes along. If you use a cell phone or email, you have helped “steal” jobs too. That last email you sent is one more letter taken out of a mail carrier’s bag. The USPS announced recently that it was out of money. Antiquated jobs like this should have closed shop years ago and completely given way to the more reliable UPS and FedEx.

  34. “As a cashier, I can tell you folks that the self-checkout lanes aren’t here to save the company money, it’s because no one wants to work for minimal wage.”

    Really? I know of plenty of people here in Michigan that would be dyin for the job…

  35. Uh, question… you go with the scanner and scan the items. Then you just plug the scanner into the cash register and bag up your stuff and go right?

    So how do they know you’re not shoplifting? With the standard self checkout they can watch as you swipe across and see you do each item. With the hand held wand thingy what’s to keep someone from just adding 4 cans of soup and only scanning three?

    And yea, iPhone on the hip is really not cool at all.

  36. Yep. There should definitely be a vaporize on sight setting. Lovely post, Steve! You had me laughing from the beginning.

  37. We use similar things at work to scan your blood and check your blood sugar. Everything we use today I read about in a science fiction book 30 years ago.

  38. New hires at the store where I work (Rehoboth Beach, Delaware) get at least a dollar more than minimum wage, with raises based on how many total hours the employee has worked. That’s in the union contract. Add to that health and vacation benefits. And during the summer (since we’re a resort town) the wage boots up to a premium, at least three-fifty over minimum wage.

    We encourage all cashiers to familiarize themselves with what is in the produce department. The guys in produce are glad to help them learn. Our store has that kind of co-operative work culture. I also do some of the bookkeeping, and have a few reference books on the shelf above my desk, which everyone knows they can use.

    Cashiers who are rude to the customers don’t last beyond the tryout period here. It’s a competitive market – customer service is a major element in our keeping our share. (This doesn’t mean the customers can’t be rude to us, but that’s a totally different story.)

  39. This was a good one. Wish I could “stun” some people in the grocery store!!!And those self-checkouts definitely need some improvement. I end up needing the cashier at least 3 times when I attempt to check out. I wouldn’t get behind me in the checkout line.

  40. Steve,

    Don’t let’em tell you having an iPhone on the

    hip is uncool. I also have my Coolpix Nikon

    next to it when cycling.

  41. The reason people sniff the produce is to tell if its ripe or has been “gassed” the right color (if it doesn’t smell like fruit then it was picked unripe.) Also for bagged vegetables you can smell a rotten potato inside the bag. What’s the difference if you wave a piece of fruit near your nose or someone else is picking them up and checking for the perfect one and rejecting them anyway?
    For the poking meat lady, she might have been trying to see if the meat had been “gassed” to give it a bright red color on top, versus the natural gray that comes with it age as its sat in the package or been repackaged with a fresher date. Creepy, huh?

  42. Dude, you gotta check out the movie “How William Shatner Changed the World” basically interviews a lot of people and explains how a lot of modern technology was based on shit in Star Trek.

    Geeks change the world!

    -Melissa (in Ann Arbor…)

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  44. I’m waiting for the RFID scanner system at the store. That way when I’ve bagged my groceries while shopping I simply walk through the scanner and it’ll total up everything. I swipe my card and I am outta there!

  45. Never understood waiters? Actually, I did
    when I was one in high school. Overall, I
    really think most Americans can pick up their own food. Plus, at your age–PSA tests–there’s
    got to be something you can do; a beggar would be more interesting and useful–
    Sorry, but I bought that pathetic excuse of a book and would like a refund. Plus your profession is a antiquated joke, but hopefully
    you haven’t wasted to many years?

  46. I enjoy your rant. I had a funny experience this morning when a waitress with a tray full of glassware smashed one at my feet. She did not apologize, ordered me to keep giving her my order.While I realize I am not the demographic that she likes(63 yr old woman)I was ticked when she gave me brown toast instead of rye and then argued with mewhether I said it aor not.I never use scanners,will leave the store if a human chashier is not available because I really believe I am saving a job. Glad to hear about the store in Deleware,would love to visit your area some day.

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