Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Way to Help our Struggling Economy

Out of the mouths of every economist on TV and from the fingers of any financial columnist in town, it sure seems like our economy isn't doing so well these days.  I don't understand how our gross domestic product is calculated or the Modigliani–Miller theorem, but financial experts are telling me things are bad so I believe it to be so.

To improve our economy, I think we should look into how our food sources are managed and operated. And by food sources I don't mean the commodities traded in Chicago.  I mean the supermarket checkout experience.  If we improve our cashiers, we improve Wall Street.

At Safeway last night, I was trying to pay for just four items (humus, a cucumber, and two loaves of bread). I had a choice of six staffed checkout lanes and the self-checkout lanes. The self-checkout lanes averaged three people in line which took them out of the running because few consumers have ever been supermarket cashiers and I wasn't willing to watch someone learn the ropes as I did 15 years ago.

Avoid evil looks of incompetence from people behind you; use a real cashier who knows produce lookup (PLU) numbers.

Of the six staffed lanes, only one was an express lane for 15 items or less, but it had six people waiting. Often, the express cashier is one of the better cashiers, but with six people in line and only two waiting in normal checkout lanes, I went with line quantity over cashier quality. I chose a lane without a full conveyor belt and a full cart waiting to be loaded.  I added my items and a minute later, the customer at the front swiped his credit card while the cashier loaded his reusable bags.

At this point I would have been fourth in the express lane at this point.

My cashier began scanning the next family's items, handling them as delicately as you'd expect for a carton of eggs or loaf of bread, but not for the can of Cheez Whiz and box of brownie mix they were buying.  Then the mother thought it'd be okay for their two-year-old to hold the plastic container of cherry tomatoes.  One squeeze and they were on the floor and took away the cashier's attention.  I helped round them up of course; damnit if I'm going to lose to the express line.

After the cashier paused to make funny faces at the baby for a third time, the couple dumped a bunch of coupons on her to scan.  After a misunderstanding of the coupon's terms, the cashier bagged the groceries as though they were Faberge eggs.  Heaven forbid the brownie mix box has a dent.

At this point I would have been next in the express line.

Why are Safeway's cashiers slow when they're not even trusted to count coins?

Finally it was my turn in line.  The loaves of bread and humus scanned easily, but for some reason the cashier took her lazy-swing-in-a-hammock-time punching in PLU 4062 for the cucumber. I swiped my Safeway card, gave her cash, and waited much too long for her to return a 5-dollar bill and bag my four items.  Safeway cashiers don't even have to count coins from their drawers which is why this should be so much faster.  The express lane cashier was already onto her second person after me had I stayed in her lane.

I know that our country's cashiers can do better with just a little more training and desire. In 1996, I did my best to learn how to work the cash register, deal with personal checks, and remember PLU numbers.  I also took pride in packing paper bags with fragile items on top, sound foundations using boxy packages, and the proper weight per bag based on the customer's strength.  Perhaps I only took pride in the work because it paid for my Sour Patch Kids' habit.

To save the economy, I propose that Safeway improve its training to make cashiers more efficient.  More efficient cashiers encourage customers to shop for more items because of a better front end experience; which leads to more money going to the store; which leads to greater food sales; which increases demand for food industry jobs and production; which gives the food industry workforce disposable income to spend on items in other sectors; which increases jobs and product demand in those sectors and their supporting industries; which leads to a continual increase in spending across the economy.

Or maybe I just won't get those two minutes of my life back waiting to checkout at Safeway.