When I was a young lad visiting my grandparents in Buffalo, New York, there was a local grocery store I loved to visit with them. It had wooden floors, a pickle barrel, and separate barrels for butter and cheese. Milk was still sold in glass bottles, and the store butcher cut meat in accordance with your wishes. There was also freshly ground coffee that smelled heavenly, as well as the fresh bread sold there. To a young boy, the shop was a wonder to behold with all of its sights, sounds, and smells. The only other institution that could hold a candle to it was an old hardware store in my hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut. It too had wooden floors, barrels on the floor for different nails and screws, a wide array of tools for just about any task, and the smell of freshly cut pine enraptured me. Such stores were magical and I never wanted to leave.

The focal point of both stores understandably was the checkout counter featuring a massive cash register with a wide array of white ivory buttons. I was mesmerized by the clerk whose fingers flew across the rows of buttons rapidly and accurately to record the transactions, each making a distinct and authoritative mechanical sound. When the register drawer was opened, a pleasant sounding bell would ring. A simple receipt was printed which identified the store by name and number, today’s date, the price of each item you purchased, sales tax, and the total. The whole receipt was no bigger than a baseball card. The machine itself was a majestic instrument made of brass with decorative swirls and lines adorning it and there was a massive handle on the right side of the register to process the final transaction. The register drawer inside it was made of wood and the oils from the fingers of clerks over the years turned it deep brown thereby revealing its age. The machine was sturdy, reliable and never broke down. To my young mind, it was truly a work of art and added a touch of class to the establishment.

Today the checkout counter is a much less pleasurable experience. Registers are plain looking plastic boxes with considerable electronics, making them much less impressive than the splendid grandeur of yesteryear. In most stores we are asked to swipe credit cards which rarely read them properly on the first pass. Then we must sign our names to acknowledge the transaction, not on paper, but on a touch screen which has a tendency of making our autographs look garbled as if it were signed by a five year old huckleberry. You’ll notice the machine will always display “Signature Accepted” regardless of how illegible it is to read, even if it is nothing more than an “X.”

Then there is the matter of the paper receipts. Instead of simple slips of paper, the machine now generates “War and Peace” containing legal terms and conditions, rebate offers that are too illegible to properly process, along with coupons and discounts on everything except what you want to buy. Reams of paper are generated thereby taking up considerable space in our wallets or purses. For a paperless society, we sure know how to kill a lot of trees.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I’m always amazed by the automatic checkout counters in the mega hardware stores and supermarkets. The concept is to allow customers to check themselves out without assistance from clerks, thereby saving the company money in terms of personnel needed to process the order. Interestingly, I have yet to see an automatic checkout counter without a human standing nearby to supervise activity and intervene when trouble arises, which seems to be always. Because these checkouts seem to be prone to processing snafus, I wonder why companies bother. After all, I prefer human contact where you are, in theory, to be treated cordially and friendly, thereby encouraging repeat business, references, and increased sales. I don’t need clerks heckling me with “Good Mornings,”but rather someone who cares about me visiting his/her store.

God, how I miss those big brass cash registers.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Copyright © 2011 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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