Being Modern: Supermarket self-service checkouts

Are you an "early adopter"? Someone who simply has to be first in line for the Betamax video player, Psion organiser or MiniDisc player ? "Being Modern" is not, as you might be able to tell from that highly partial list of deadbeat technology – we'd rather wait until half the planet has test-driven the latest widget before we'll buy into it.

Which is why we find the now ubiquitous supermarket self-service checkout machines so very painful – who hasn't been informed, loudly, insistently, repeatedly, infuriatingly by one of these retail robots that there is an – altogether now – "Unexpected item in the bagging area"? In supermarkets up and down the land, the shoppers of Britain are early adopters, whether they like it or not.

To which you might say, well, that's what being modern is all about. The idea behind the checkouts is that more unmanned tills must surely mean we won't have to queue so long. That's probably true – the problem comes with the machines themselves. As examples of industrial design, they're not so much in their infancy as still gestating.

No doubt in years to come self- checkout will be a tautologous phrase; until then, we have to put up with a sharp-voiced automaton which assumes we are all shoplifters until proven innocent. Did you know, for instance, that the official term for a shop assistant having to help at a self-service checkout is an "intervention"? Well, yes, I suppose I might well be about to do harm to myself and others at Sainsbury's Upper Norwood while the fact that I'm using my own shopping bags is "verified" for the fourth time in five minutes.

Intervention is a term from the company, National Cash Register, which supplies most of these checkouts and describes its innovation as "fast, efficient and fun". And the industry has plenty in store for us, apparently. Self-service checkouts that identify and greet us personally. Barcode readers for us to use as we take items from the shelves. Built-in cameras that automatically recognise fruit and veg. All the "fun" we can handle, then...

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