In the market for some solitude

The Baltimore Sun

I drove out to the future of grocery stores yesterday, but when I stopped for gas, I ended up on a detour to the past.

There wasn't anywhere on the gas pump to stick my credit card, so I just started filling up, marveling that there was still a place where they trusted you to pay after rather than before. But then - cue the Twilight Zone music - a ghost appeared.

Well, not a real ghost, but what seems like one these days: an actual human asking if he could help me.

Turns out I had driven into what must be one of the last full-service stations around here. The attendant - maybe it was Charlie himself, since I was at Charlie's Service Station on Liberty Road in Randallstown - was such a pro, he got it to exactly $48, which served to jolt me back to the present.

Anyway, I was soon back on the road to the future, or rather, Martin's Food Market in Sykesville. Martin's already uses the hand-scanner technology that the Giant grocery chain is going to start installing in its stores as part of a massive effort to regain its once-dominant position in the market, The Sun's Andrea K. Walker reported yesterday.

The scanners keep a running total as you laser the bar codes on items as you put them in your cart, and then, with one last zap at a self-service checkout lane, you're out of there - without, theoretically at least, a single human interaction.

I'm of two minds when it comes to such devices. It's a chicken-egg thing: I wonder if they're great because they allow us to bypass a potentially rude salesperson, or if salespersons - and shoppers, for that matter - are rude because they get less and less practice interacting with other human beings.

I guess it doesn't really matter at this point, since human-bypassing technology is everywhere. I can't think of the last time I went to a bank teller rather than the ATM, or spoke to an actual customer service representative rather than pressing number after number on the phone. Once I figure out my GPS, I'm sure that will replace my current method of waving to the driver in the next lane, doing that universal roll-your-window down signal and just asking for directions.

I think I'll miss that, because I love being asked for directions myself. Who doesn't like to show off? Or maybe I just like chance encounters and random exchanges. I've been pondering this one since Sunday: I had stopped at a small nonchain grocery to pick up a couple of things, and the bagger noted that the red onion I bought was the same color as my lipstick.

All the way home, I wondered if that was a compliment or a gentle, word-to-the-wise kind of thing.

Being somewhat misanthropic and often in a rush, I'm not entirely opposed to getting my grocery shopping done without the human touch. I generally use the self-service checkout lanes at the grocery stores that offer them - the lines are usually shorter, I don't have to watch in pained silence as cashiers double-bag everything, increasing my carbon footprint just because I don't want to be rude and correct them.

My shopping expedition at Martin's wasn't exactly human-free - I had to sign up for a bonus card to get access to the hand scanners, which a nice employee at the counter helped me do. Then, when I got to the checkout I had to ask a cashier - also nice - to help me since it seemed just like the self-service checkouts at other stores, meaning it looked like I'd have to scan my stuff a second time. I didn't; I just had to aim the scanner at a done-shopping bar code and pay up.

So I came away thinking more about how nice the employees were than how convenient the scanners were. (It didn't seem like scanning as you go was that much faster than scanning all at once at checkout, but it was kind of fun, in a Wii sort of way.)

Giant officials told Walker that the hand scanners - as well as a remote deli-ordering system, some freshening up of older stores and a change in the staff dress code - are part of an effort to regain the lost "good service and personal relationships between customers and employees" for which the company was once known. So maybe the theory is that if you lessen the number of encounters between shoppers and staff - a better-dressed staff, in a nicer environment - the interactions you do have will be more pleasant. Or maybe the new technology is just a way to cut down on the number of staff, and leave those still on board fearful of being replaced by yet another device.

Still, until they create a scanner that can tell you if your lipstick matches your produce, surely some humans will always have a job.


Find Jean Marbella's column archive at


Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad