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Smartphones & prodding the cattle (customer)
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

Back in the Stone Age if you wanted to know the cost of an item on a grocery store shelf you picked it up and looked for a sticky square-shaped adhesive tag.

The tags often had indecipherable numbers in hard-to-read blue or black ink slapped in place by stock boys barely out of puberty who got their first jobs making youth minimum wages. The lower than adult minimum wage allowed them to get work experience by giving stores an incentive to employ teens who were starting out and still hadn't developed basic work ethic skills.

You didn't need to determine whether a shelf price display - assuming you can find one - applied to a particular size or item. Nor did you have to walk halfway around the store to find a price scanner that actually worked.

Cashiers would dutifully look for the same tag and do an archaic ritual of tapping number keys to ring up the price of your purchases. The cashiers would actually talk with you, bag your purchases, and then a bag boy might offer to carry your bags to your car.

In a few years you'll be lucky if there is an "observer" on duty for a cluster of self-checkout stands that can help you figure out how to do free work for the store without them having to spend a dime in manpower to take a payment from you.

Isn't the coming $15 minimum wage in California a beautiful thing making it economically feasible for stores to invest in self check out technology to eliminate at least four cashier jobs at a time?

I get that we were probably headed that way eventually. That said it is always nice to have the state accelerate progress and eliminate entry level jobs faster than if the market was allowed to evolve on its own.

Given that we are doing more of the work to improve a store's bottom line, it would be nice if manufacturers paid a little more attention to where they place Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) codes on packages.

My favorite are bags of dog food. If you buy a smaller bag, the SKU bar is in an easy to access place on the front. There are also multiple SKU bars allowing you to easily find one.

But if you buy 50-pound bags, the sadistic side of the dog food manufacturer shines through. There is usually only one SKU bar and typically it is in a place where you and/or the cashier have to struggle in order for them to be able to scan the code. One particular brand puts the bar code on the bottom of the bag. If you've ever tried to wrestle with a 50-gallon bag of dog food - 55 pounds if you are lucky and get a "bonus package" so a cashier can get a good read with a scanner gun - you would agree picking up a zoned-out 9-year-old sleeping kid up a flight of stairs is a piece of cake.

Then there are the dolts who sell smaller items that are wrapped in such a manner with cellophane style packaging that a protruding segment is created - think of a small package of eight cookies placed in a small, partial cardboard style box. Do they place the bar code on the cellophane wrapper so that it lands square in the bottom to make it easy to scan? Why should they do that? Instead the clerk has to spend 30 to 45 seconds trying to pinch the cellophane in such a manner so that they can get a workable scan. Apparently the fine folks at Grandma's Cookies never buy their products at a store.

Technology had made shopping more convenient, hasn't it?

You know where this is heading, don't you? If you don't have a smartphone one day you won't be able to buy items in a store.

Retailers won't have to bother with placing price scanners that don't work throughout the store - although there must be an entertainment factor in tormenting customers by forcing them to scurry around the store looking for a price check scanner that works.

Instead you can scan the price on a smartphone app. Better yet - as some stores are now doing - you can scan your own purchases and pay using an app.

Good luck, however, being able to shop without a smartphone or an app that allows you to transfer money to the store. Store staff and money are so 19th century.

Already there are code writers who shop, eat, and socialize on devices without leaving their cubicle working on programs to have your smartphone steer you to items in a store that you should buy but you're not smart enough to figure that you need them.

They might even add some interaction with a computer generated voice system via the store app so you can feel you are getting that human touch so you know that Jeff Bezos et al value you as a customer and not a scanned commodity.

It isn't about optimizing customer service and making the shopping experience a pleasure as it is about maximizing the transfer of funds from your ATM.

Brick and mortar stores really have no choice but to go down the tech path if they want to survive in the cut throat world created by Amazon.

Bezo's legacy will have been transforming the "customer first" culture that once dominated American retail into one where customers are mere cattle to herd, prod with smartphones, and separate them from their money.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.