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Check it out: We’re losing the human connection

Posted by Sarah Moomaw  January 8, 2011 02:11 PM

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It was front page news Tuesday, top of the fold: Self-checkout is a “way of life,” a done deal and, like it or not, it’s here to stay.

Pretty soon there won’t be any lackadaisical or grumpy or gum-chewing cashiers to complain about, just machines reading bar codes and chastising you in their automaton voices. “Unknown item in bag. Please remove.”

I will miss all the cashiers. I will miss their “hellos’’ and “how are yous’’ that are automatic, too, I suppose, but a human connection, sometimes the only connection some people have.

I will miss the jib-jab between teenagers, because it’s the same as it always was. “What time are you off? What are you doing tonight?” Their job just a job, not a career, yet. Their youth sweeter than the mangoes they always have to price check.

I will miss the practiced efficiency of the older people and the steady efforts of the baggers. I will miss the whole flawed human-based system (“I’m closed. Don’t you see that sign? You need to go to another line.”) that brings us together, like pinballs in a machine sometimes, bouncing off one another, but that makes us aware of one another’s presence, if only for a while.

The do-it-yourself things in our world may be efficient, but they isolate people. I pump my own gas and hate every second, not just because it’s dirty and gross and hardly what you want to be doing when you’re dressed for work or off to a wedding, but because I miss pulling into the gas station and having someone like Mr. Mugford say, “Where are you off to today?” Or “How’s the family?” Or “Can you believe this cold?”

Human connections are important.

It’s why I miss travel professionals. Everything you need to know about every place in the world may be on the Web, all the best deals and meals at our fingertips, but there is something critical that is not there — a human being sharing a personal experience. I miss the tales that Carol Rosenberg and Helen Kobey used to tell.

I miss all salespeople. It used to be that when you shopped for clothes, no matter where — Jordan Marsh, Coat’s Field — there were salespeople to help you choose, to bring your clothes to a dressing room, and to actually check on you. “Do you want me to get you a different size?”

All shoe stores, not just the pricey ones, had salespeople who measured feet. Even the old five-and-tens had clerks at every counter.

The clerks are gone now, at least in the big, popular stores, salespeople are few, and if you believe what you read, cashiers are to retail what tigers are to the wild — one of the earth’s fastest-disappearing species.

I suppose we’ll survive without them.

But here’s the thing. After my father died, I was in Raynham at the Market Basket, where he used to shop. And a cashier recognized me because I’d shopped with him there a few times. And she said, “I’m sorry about your father. He was a nice man. He always made me smile.”

I go to a small gym not because it has modern equipment. It doesn’t. I go to Terban Health and Fitness because the owner is the personal trainer and he’s there all the time and he cares about every one of his members.

I go to Café Bella in Randolph and Big D’s, Kelly’s, and Queen Anne’s in Canton, not because they’re efficient and I can pay and leave quickly, but because Jim and Gary and Carol and Frank are there to say hi.

And I go to the Apple store in Braintree, not because its products are great, but because its staff is even better.

Self-checkout may get customers out of a store sooner.

But retailers should ask themselves: Is this what they really want?

Canton resident Beverly Beckham can be reached at bevbeckham@aol.com.

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