The service came to fruition after a long evolution, and it could change grocery shopping in unforseen ways. But before we jump into The Future, it’s worth reflecting on how bar code and mobile technology have impacted the task of buying groceries. A typical grocery errand—just thirty years ago! Without mobile communications we now take for granted, no one could contact me en route about adding a last-minute item to my shopping list, or about making an unplanned stop at the dry cleaner. (No one could text me, because the word had not become a verb!) I couldn’t make my errand more productive by calling a business colleague from the car. And I couldn’t stand in the cereal aisle and chat on the phone with a friend about plans for Friday evening. Making a phone call meant walking outside the store to use a filthy wall-mounted pay phone. Sometimes there was a handset on the end of the vandal-proof cable—sometimes there wasn’t. Inside the store, I was an anonymous customer. Retailers did not use loyalty cards. A cashier read prices from “human-readable” stickers that were affixed to every manufactured item in the store. Then, the price for each item was key-entered them into a cash register—the predecessor of the Point of Sale terminal. Even the decimal required a separate keystroke! Each price entry was accompanied by a “category” key so the retailer would know whether the purchased product was “grocery,” “deli,” or “produce.” This tedium continued for each of the sixty-or-so items I collected in my steel shopping cart. If the process sounds slow, laborious, and error-prone, it’s because it was. Little wonder that retailers suffered from low accounting accuracy, and cashiers were compelled to form unions. Wages increased and workers periodically went on strike, creating an impetus to develop the cost-saving technologies that ironically grew up to become self-service checkouts.
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