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Buying your own shopping, literally...

Our local supermarket, a Super U, has installed four do-it-yourself tills. These work on the basic principle that you scan the barcode of each item, and then you place the item into a 'carrier' where it is weighed. This, I would imagine, is to prevent you from beeping a bottle of milk and then dropping a 4Gb USB stick into the hamper; though they're selling 1Gb ones for four euros, so maybe in a year or two you might be able to pick up 4Gb for ~€1,20?

We first went through on the first day the service was unveiled, and it was miserable - the machine complained about the weight of everything and the girl overseeing the auto-tills had to authorise herself every time and instruct the machine to ignore the weight. I suspect that the system was devised to work well, but it was not actually tested by a trail run before being unleashed on the public. Here's my thought - next time you are in a supermarket, look at bottled water. Not the fancy stuff, but the six-pack of 1.5 or 2 litre bottles. Notice how it is a bit hit-and-miss as to how full the bottles are. They could be a centimetre-odd below the lid, or so full you'll get a wetting no matter how careful you are. Multiply by six, and tell me how this will affect the weight.

Our subsequent passes through the auto-till have been painless, so much so that my mother even used it by herself!
What I think changed is that they educated the machine to the concept of "margin of error". The paper may not weigh exactly 60.4g, the 375g of pasta sauce might be 430g (inc. packet). Trying to stick too rigidly to this will just annoy everybody, not help them.

First, you touch the screen. That wakes the machine up. Instructions are printed, and if you do not do anything in a couple of seconds (you know, vital time while you're trying to figure out where the barcode is - this isn't Lidl after all!), the machine speaks to you in a soft motherly (but ever so patronising) voice. The process is simple. Take your item, beep it, place it in the hamper, while waiting for the machine to catch up most of the time (and without the option to be patronising back!). When you are done, you tell it you want to "Règle", which means pay. It asks you if you have a fidelity card, and if you do you can beep that for points and such. Then you proceed to paying. You can pay by plastic, actual money (and it gives change!) and there's a third item which is probably to call the girl over.

For those in a hurry, it is a real boon. I grabbed a sandwich and a yogourt drink and I passed the checkout process in under a minute.
For those with more than half a handbasket, it is unlikely to be very attractive. There are also issues from non-barcoded items, reduced items, and money-off coupons. These probably get the girl called over (and let me point out that it's a sort of whiney siren and red flashing light, if a cute female had a "wardrobe malfunction" and her breasts shot out, there'd be a lot less fuss...) which while not a hardship does reduce the time it takes for the process to complete. There's also the problem that a sufficient number of the aforementioned cute females are actually working the tills. I know there is about 0% chance of my ever 'dating' the wannabe-librarian-like checkout girl, but I can at least do it in my imagination, pass through her till and trick myself into believing that it means something that she smiled at me (ignoring that she smiled and was pleasant to the past 176 people...). The auto-till's sole function, as far as I am concerned, is when time is short and/or the queues are horrendous. Given a choice, depite being a computer-programming net-weenie, I'm afraid I'd pick the human. You simply can't say "Bon journée!" to a machine, and if you did... well, they have places with padded walls for people like that.

So long as they maintain a suitable number of human tills alongside this, it will be good to have a choice. I'm just a little bit worried about the long-long term plan. Remember, this is the country where you can do remarkably little in a bank without involving a cash machine. Want money? Cash machine. Want to pay in? Cash machine. Want to transfer money? Cash machine. There's a load of stuff the machine does, I've not looked up half of it in my dico so who knows, you might be able to mail-order Russian Brides using the cash machine... and this is part of what influenced my decision to open an account with La Banque Postale, you at least get an actual human to talk to in the post office (with the ability to use a cash machine elsewhere if you prefer). The Super U claims that they will not be suppriming any jobs as a result of this, but I'm not thinking now, I'm thinking five years down the line. Thankfully the machine's relative inability to cope with large amounts of stuff should ensure that people with laden trolleys will simply avoid them; and with a little bit of luck this is an enterprise action aimed squarely at those British people who wish to come in, grab lunch, pay, and leave in about three minutes total. I say "British" people, because for all the Frenchies are impatient on the roads, they certainly talk a lot when in queues; rather like the stereotype of the pensioners waiting to cash in their giros...

If I could make a suggestion, it would be this: You take your goods from your panier, whizz them across the barcode scanner, and then place them in this weighing hopper. Easy, problem free. However if you have more than you can carry, once you've paid you have to fart around taking the stuff and bagging it up. There should be an option (with operator-girl's help, of course) where you can put a bag or two into the weighing hopper and 'zero' that, then you can put your purchases directly into the bag to be weighed. When done and paid, pick up your bags and walk...



At work we have a network terminal. It isn't terribly fast, but it suffices to let me log into Yahoo! to check my emails and so on. However the thing is running a program called "SiteKiosk". I bet I could write a program to do this. Essentially it is a simple presentation of MSIE (think of the "WebBrowser" control, if you know VisualBasic). There is no menu. You can only really have one window (though this can, clumsily, be worked around from time to time) and pretty much everything else says "Not authorised".
I mean pretty much everything. The machine has a USB port. Insert a memory key and it pops up the standard "What do you want to do?" dialogue. Opening Explorer is trapped and cancelled. Not authorised. There's no ability to save stuff to the USB key.

I did work around it for saving some emails. Here is how:

  • You must have a text file on your USB key before you start.
  • Log into your email service.
  • Read your email. Then press ^A to select all (or drag mouse to select some), and then press ^C to copy it to the clipboard.
  • Go to write a message and then go to add an attachment. While the uploading of stuff is 'not authorised', you will at least get as far as seeing the filesystem. Go to your USB key (probably 'E:') and find your text file.
  • Right-click on your text file. Select "Open with..." and choose NotePad out of the options.
  • When your text file opens in Notepad, go to the bottom of the file and press ^V to paste the stuff you copied. Press ^S to save the file, then close Notepad (I don't think you can Alt-Tab).

To say this is a clumsy solution would be stating the obvious. If you have any better suggestions, either for disabling SiteKiosk long enough to fire up MSIE so I can save stuff normally (like the Wikipedia info on "J2ME", for example) or being able to save in SiteKiosk, please let me know...

The picture below is why I think the machine was not working. I mentioned it to the "maintenance" bloke and he asked how long it had been broken for. When I said two or three weeks, he said "has it!?!?". Gee, very observant!
Well, after reporting it to my superior twice and the maint. bloke and one of the green-hats (somebody in charge) plus making a glib comment while sitting next to the quality control girls (all green hats), somebody finally paid attention and it is now working. I'm writing this retrospecively, it was fixed on 2008/10/23, after... actually I think it went down about the beginning of the month. Wow, how time flies. Then again, it's a month more I've worked and a month less I have to do. My back is starting to play up, so I'm rethinking if I'd do December if it was offered. Perhaps if I wasn't on "menage" all the time I wouldn't feel like this.


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Rick, 7th March 2010, 23:43
Just to update you... you can now zero the machine with a bag in place. 
It isn't quite perfect as if you have to fiddle with the bag to get the product in, it will mess up the product weighing and that red light will flash... 
...oh, the machine will ask you (in patronising voice) to take the last item out of the hopper and put it in again, but I've never yet had that actually work. It'll just ask over and over until you pull out that chaingun you've been hiding in your pocket...or the girl comes and tells the machine to ignore the issue.
Rob, 8th March 2010, 23:13
We've had the automatic machines appear in our local supermarket. Co-incidentally with a drastic reduction in staffing of the remaining "manual" tills. They are a pain in the neck - you have to wait for the machine to actually weigh your purchases before it will even let you scan the next item... and whilst I've got the knack of scanning reduced items (make sure the original barcode is FULLY covered by the one on the reduction sticker) sometimes it beeps to register a successful scan, but doesn't actually record it, whereupon we get the dreaded "unexpected item in bagging area!!!!" shouted warning. I get that a lot, especially when the little one is loose and trying to climb on it...
Rick, 10th March 2010, 02:09
Yes, I also have to wait for the machine to weigh, though thankfully it is not that slow. Problem is, I've had it beep the next item to then immediately complain about the last one. Confuses the helper no end as she tells the machine to ignore the current item and it does...but won't shut up. 
Mmmm, maybe I should have been a checkout girl? On second thoughts, standing at a beeping machine for hours on end with no toilet break (seriously, do you ever see them rush off for a pee?) sounds like medieval torture. 
As for reduction stickers. Well, we aren't quite that advanced. We have a sticker that says either the new price (no barcode) or "10% off". I find the latter amusing given that most of the school-leaver checkout girls can be easily flummoxed if the purchases come to 4,87 and you give her 5 a five euro note and 37 in coin. I'm bloody maths-dyslexic yet I can figure that out. 
But no, most of them will give you back the clickies and then look for 13 change. <sigh>

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