This is a silly story about the most stupid interaction I have had with a piece of technology that’s supposed to make life easier, and it all starts at the grocery store.
The closest supermarket to my house is a Giant (ironically, a medium-sized one). It’s nearby, well-stocked, price-competitive, and generally well-run, so my family does most of our grocery shopping there.
One major feature for us is the chain’s SCAN-IT service: a handheld scanner, or an app you can put on your phone, that allows you to check out and bag your own items as you go. Pretty convenient, as far as it goes, except for one major flaw: the system apparently cannot do basic arithmetic, such as determining that two is in fact less than seven.
Scan-It and the honor system
The Scan-It app is straightforward to use. You load it up on your phone while on the store’s Wi-Fi network and point your phone camera at the barcodes on the things you want to buy. The store has scales throughout the produce section where you can weigh your fruit and vegetables and print a label to scan. For loose items such as bagels or muffins, the bakery has centralized barcodes hanging on signs.
When your shopping trip is done, you hit the “checkout” button, and the app (or hand scanner) closes out your session and displays a barcode. You then scan the barcode from your phone, the hand scanner, or even on your actual plastic store rewards card at a self checkout station, pay, and leave.
If the system sounds easy to abuse, well, it is. To cut down on abuse, there’s a small, random chance of any given transaction being audited. (In somewhere between 50 and 80 transactions in a given calendar year among my whole family, we face a cumulative average of four or five audits.) When your transaction is audited, you have to present your items and the scanner to a store employee. The employee then enters an administrative menu on a point-of-sale terminal and scans seven items from your cart at random. If all seven items return matches—meaning the shopper also scanned them during the transaction—then the system accepts the results and you get to pay and go on your merry way.
This system has a problem. Several, actually, but the key problem for me was that an audit requires seven items. No matter how many you actually buy.
When N < 7
On Friday, I wanted something healthy for lunch, so I walked into the store and hit the salad bar. While I was there, I grabbed some scallions for dinner, bringing my grand total to two items. I printed a sticker for the salad at a scale in the produce section, scanned my two items using my phone, and hit the checkout button—the most boring, pedestrian series of events I ever hope to recount in a story.
Apparently, Friday was just not my day for random number roulette. Atop the barcode on my phone, I saw the dreaded text: “Cashier assistance is required to complete your order.” Cashier assistance, in Scan-It terms, means one of two things: either you are purchasing alcohol and someone needs to verify you are older than 21 (and boy am I ever) or your order is being audited.
Off I trotted to customer service with my arm full of veggies. The assistant manager at the desk laughed that I would be audited over two items, then got a scanner and went through the audit process. That’s when we ran into trouble.
The employee interface verified that my cart contained two (2) items. She scanned both. It verified that those two items were ones I had scanned. And then it told her that she needed to scan five more items to complete the audit, because the audit requires seven items to be scanned.
Trying to get the software to recognize that you cannot scan seven items when fewer items have been purchased was, it turns out, a special kind of purgatory. She tried every kind of reset and override available to her, but no luck. The audit would not complete and resolve until she scanned seven items. No single item could be scanned multiple times, but she couldn’t exit or restart the transaction until resolving the audit. Basically, it launched into a failure loop where every attempt to resolve one error triggered the other error. We gave up on the audit, and she tried to scan my items at the register for purchase, but my rewards card could not be used on a transaction because there was an open, pending audit on my account.
The employee apologized profusely for the inconvenience. I assured her that I in no way blamed her for the system, nor the fact that it seemed to be designed by howler monkeys. In the end, she used the store card for my discounts; I paid for my food, thanked her, and went on my way with my salad and a plan to buy at least seven things the next time I went to the store. (A goal that was easy to achieve, as I bought a week’s worth of groceries for our family of four on Sunday—the open transaction eventually timed out.)
Around and around
This is absolutely the lowest-stakes, most pointless, most entitled problem to have, I realize. But the software used to be more flexible—in years past, I faced audits where employees scanned three or five items from my cart. It’s unclear why the platform now demands seven and exactly seven items—no more, no fewer—regardless of the number of items in the customer’s order.
Giant, which operates in the mid-Atlantic, is one of about a half-dozen US grocery chains owned by international supermarket powerhouse Ahold Delhaize. Ahold Delhaize also owns the Stop and Shop grocery chain in the northeast; the two operations are functionally identical aside from the name after a joint rebranding a decade ago. The Scan-It system is in use at both chains, and Ahold is expanding its use across other company brands as well. (I asked Ahold about Scan-It but did not receive a response.)
Self-service, “frictionless checkout” is all the rage in retail right now. Late in 2019 Ahold launched a completely frictionless store, in the vein of Amazon Go. Walmart and other major retailers are also considering ways to eliminate the bottleneck at the register by removing registers. A system like the one I encountered at Giant, though, friction—I now know that it would have taken me less time to wait in line behind the woman with the cart full of produce and La Croix than it took me to go the supposedly easy route. In short: it seems there’s a long way to go before grocery stores and big-box stores can fully embrace a self-service future.