The Long Winding Paper Trail of Life
Department of Irony
If you don’t regularly shop for groceries—or building supplies or sporting goods or articles of clothing or 10,001 other retail items—you probably haven’t noticed, but it takes a lot longer to go through a checkout line these days.
You’d think that with computers and bar codes this chore would be easier than ever before. Nope. Just the opposite.
You remember the good ol’ days, of course. Yes, that golden age of shopping when there was a clerk on every other aisle and price stickers were manually applied to every item in the store.
When you reached the checkout back then, each price had to be manually entered into an old-timey cash register that crunched the numbers, rang a bell and spit out the receipt along with your change.
If the clerk had a problem reading the price on, say, a loaf of bread, she—it always was a woman or, on weekends and non-school hours, a teenaged girl—walked back to the bread aisle for the correct information.
Doesn’t work like that anymore. The process has been modernized, speeded up, made more efficient.
Meaning it takes about twice as long.
First, the computerized cash register will invariably have a problem scanning one or more of the bar codes on your merchandise. The clerk will stand there, waving the item back and forth across the screen like a wand, waiting for a “beep” that never comes.
Having no success, the clerk will then attempt to punch in the numbers manually.
Sometimes this works. Most times it doesn’t. So the only thing to do is call back to the bakery department for a price check.
That’s OK in theory. But since the massive bakery department is now located in an adjacent county, a new millennium will pass before the correct information gets forwarded to the front.
Then things really slow down.
Remember that little receipt from the old-timey cash register? It has gone the way of the rotary-dial telephone.
Cash registers don’t issue short, terse receipts any more. Instead, they regurgitate writs that run the federal tax code a race for volume.
I hold in my hands two receipts from a local supermarket. The name of the joint isn’t that important because everybody’s wasting paper these days.
The first receipt measures 11¾ inches in length. It covers my recent purchase of two items—a 12-pack of soft drinks and some plastic cups.
The rest of the space is taken up with cutesy notations indicating the checkout clerk’s name, how delighted the store is to have me as a customer, how much I “saved” on this trip by using the store’s “discount” card, and how much I have “saved” throughout the year with the same alleged “discount” card.
(In point of fact, I have saved nothing. I have merely prevented the store from overcharging me if I don’t carry its stupid card. Legal blackmail, as it were. But that’s grist for another day.)
The second receipt is a whopper. It stretches 13-¼ inches. I probably should rejoice, however, because even though it’s longer than the first, it covers far more items: pears, carrots, two boxes of crackers, a box of Kleenex and a bag of cookies.
Yes, there are the obligatory messages and greetings and “savings” (insert laugh here) calculations. Plus seven coupons for goods and services ranging from dental work to oil changes to hair products to Mexican fast food.
Huh? Does this mean I should expect a grocery store coupon the next time I go to the dentist, get my car lubed, have my hair cut or visit a Mexican restaurant? Just wondering.
Oh, and please understand that none of these documents was published rapidly.
Instead, the cash register had to cough and groan and say “ca-jung” and “ja-jing” incessantly until the paper slowly began to emerge. Indeed, the machine kept coughing and groaning and “ca-junging” and “ja-jinging” as the paper coiled from the contraption like a python slowly exiting its den.
How can this process take so long?
Are there itty-bitty monks down there in the bowels of the thing, scribbling with goose quill pens or turning the cranks on a Gutenberg press to produce it?
Is this contraption hooked up to a pulp mill? Must it wait for paper to be manufactured for each transaction?
Grandpaw—who walked into Asa’s General Store, asked for two cans of beans and told Asa to put it on his bill—didn’t realize how lucky he was.
Sam Venable is an author, stand-up comedian, and humor columnist for the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel. He may be reached at .