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Check Out The Latest Industry To Leave Us Holding The Bag

It was almost midnight, and there I was, stuck in the supermarket's self-checkout aisle.

No other lane was open.

There were four computerized machines. One was out of order and another had a frozen screen.

Shoppers at the other two - aware of the lines massing behind them - were furiously searching for barcodes and credit cards while a robotic voice barked orders at them.

Please scan your next item. Place the item in the bag.

Overseeing all this mercantile misery was an unconcerned cashier, casually twirling her hair.

Self-checkout is the scourge of supermarkets. The latest consumer indignity.

In case you haven't noticed, corporate America has been busily nibbling away at marketplace niceties for decades and replacing them with, well, absolutely nothing.

Remember the first time you had to pump your own gas? Check your own oil? Inflate your own tires?

Americans took those gas station gestures for granted until they vanished under the broad banner of Do It Yourself, Chump.

Did we complain? We did not.

OK, maybe a little. But we quickly became accustomed to standing beside our gas tanks in all kinds of weather, trying not to inhale the fumes, while watching the numbers whip by at a dizzying pace.

"There was a time..." you start to tell your kids when you slide behind the steering wheel reeking of Eau de Exxon... but then you stop. They'd never believe it if you were to tell them that once upon a time, gas station attendants waited on you like you were royalty. They washed your windshield, waved goodbye when you left.

The only time you see gas station employees today is when they're on their ladders, hiking prices.

Dare I mention the airlines?

Geezers recall the days of full-course meals and comfy seats, while the rest of us are nostalgic for free water.

In an attempt to squeeze every last peso out of hapless travelers, some airlines charge for soft drinks and H2O. Others have the audacity to levy checked-baggage fees. One airline - let's just call it JetBlue - announced this week that it's imposing a $7 surcharge on pesky passengers who insist on being pampered with a pillow or blanket on flights lasting more than two hours.

Sheesh.

This sort of arrogance is starting to hit supermarkets. We can avoid air travel, but it's not so easy to do without food.

Some of us were happy when supermarkets suggested we buy reusable bags and bring them with us when we shop. It's good for the environment.

But now they want us to ring up our own food, load our own sacks, give ourselves a receipt and tell ourselves to have a nice day. Look, self-service checkout works well with tech-savvy customers who are buying a couple of items. But when supermarkets force the barcode-impaired into these same lines, bottlenecks result, tempers flare.

Maybe it's time to remind these chains that there are shoppers and there are cashiers. I'm a shopper.

If I wanted to be a cashier, I'd head to customer service and get an application.

A version of this ran in The Virginian-Pilot on August 7, 2008.

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