By Paul V. Palange

Please think twice about using self-checkout machines

I had several part-time jobs as a teenager and was lucky enough to land a full-time summer gig in the local National Can factory between my junior and senior years in college. That was the best-paying job I had before matriculating, but the place that I enjoyed working at the most was the Nine-to-Nine supermarket in town.

Unfortunately, the factory and supermarket closed several years ago. To my knowledge, no other manufacturing company opened shop to replace the solid union National Can jobs. A company that has 17 locations opened a grocery store in my hometown, and while that’s good, I don’t think it has the same family feel as the Nine-to-Nine.

I started reminiscing recently about the couple of years I was employed at the Nine-to-Nine when I stumbled upon a Facebook post from Smithfield Times Publisher John J. Tassoni Jr. about how the use of self-checkout machines at grocery stores kills jobs. I’m glad there were no such contraptions in play 47 or so years back. If there were, I might not have had the opportunity to do just about every job there is at a supermarket and learn several life lessons along the way.

One of the more important lessons “Ma Warren” and Frank taught me is that customer service is paramount. They led by example and drilled into us young part-timers that regardless of the circumstances or the attitude of the consumer, the customer was always right even when he or she was wrong. They demonstrated how critical it is to bend over backward to keep patrons happy and to treat everyone with dignity and respect, even the local hotel owner who sampled the grapes and figs and received a price break on each item he purchased.

Meanwhile, the slightly older full-timers taught me the importance of teamwork, tackling tasks with urgency and being a worker who didn’t need direction and found one of the many jobs that had to be done to keep the store in tiptop shape. Those included rotating dairy items, keeping the shelves neat, straightening out the frozen food display freezers, arranging the produce, tidying up the end-cap aisle displays, pricing and putting out product and taking out the trash.

Besides doing all of those chores, most of us worked the registers, bagged groceries and fetched carriages. And I’m not being a romantic when I tell someone that I loved those weekend and pre-holiday customer rushes, going at a feverish pace to get everyone checked out and seeing most of them smile as they left the store with packed carriages. Frequently five minutes after taking a deep breath, we’d gladly be coping with another rush.

The pros and cons of today’s impersonal approach to retailing and the pluses and minuses of online shopping are subjects that could fuel a series of columns. I know that I dislike the emphasis on self-service and the introduction of robots in supermarkets, and I hope I’m not alone. I like the personal touch, and I like dealing with genuinely nice store personnel.

Does progress always have to mean eliminating lower-tier jobs from which teens and young adults can learn a thing or two? Isn’t it valuable for them to learn how to work cooperatively with colleagues and supervisors and that it’s important to be punctual and presentable? Is that asking too much? Is it old-time? I don’t think so.

As an aside, my Nine-to-Nine experience indirectly demonstrated to me that not everything is what it appears to be. I was walking home from an early shift one day and had a coveted silver pricing stamp in a holster snapped around my belt. A resident or motorist thought someone armed and dangerous was walking down Forest Road and called the police. A patrolman stopped me and checked out my “weapon.” We chuckled, he apologized and off I went with an amusing anecdote to tell my folks.

Please think twice about using self-checkout machines. Consider that using such technology could eliminate jobs that someone needs; whether it’s a young person saving for college, a motor vehicle or the prom or an older individual working at the retail outlet full-time or supplementing an income to make ends meet.

Furthermore, why should consumers pay a company and do the job of a cashier and bagger? It makes cents for the owners, but it makes no sense to me.