the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Outsourced Caring™

(UPDATE: I opened up comments because I seem to have struck a nerve.)

I thought that instead of regaling you with stories about our very low-key Thanksgiving holiday — lots of butter, high fructose corn syrup, and the occasional bucket of Crisco — I would treat you to a cute little tale about inconvenience, aggression, and me losing my shit all over a complete stranger, albeit one who totally deserved it. Think of it as my way of spreading a little holiday cheer, like a roll of used toilet paper tossed high above a Christmas tree.

Last Wednesday night I had to make a late-evening run to the grocery store to pick up some ingredients we needed to make the creamed onion dish we’d been assigned to bring to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Because I was also out of my very special organic cereal, the one with the whole grains and blueberry clusters, the one that has enough dietary fiber to kill a horse, I decided to go to the grocery store that is further from our house than our normal grocery store as it is the only one of the two that carries this cereal. I know that the extra gasoline I spent driving that longer distance totally cancels out any good I am doing by buying organic, but that isn’t what keeps me awake at night. This is:

So here is where I switch to present tense because I keep reliving the horror over and over again, as if what happened that night is happening again right now. And I am normally the person in this family who just gets over these types of things, the one who is incapable of holding a grudge, whereas Jon is still mad at a mosquito that bit him on a camping trip in second grade.

So there I am chasing Leta through the grocery store, burning thousands of brain calories as I try to locate ingredients while simultaneously keeping track of a three-year-old who will not stand still. And no, do not send me email asking why I don’t just put her in a shopping cart already, because we’ve tried that, and the result was like pouring sand into a spaghetti strainer. A loud, screaming spaghetti strainer. With claws.

Thirty minutes and a basket full of bulky boxes later we head to checkout, and by this time I’ve got sweat dripping down the back of my neck, and all I want to do is set down this heavy basket and catch my breath for a second. Part of the reason I don’t normally shop at this grocery store is because of its enormity, because there are far too many places for Leta to hide, far too many miles in between those two things that I need, and by the time I’m done shopping I’ve got shin splints.

Another reason I don’t like shopping here is the fact that they force customers to use the self-checkout machines. Poorly designed, unusable self-checkout machines that routinely eat fingers. And when Leta and I walk to the front of the store we find that they have only one regular checkout open in an attempt to force almost everyone into two 12-person lines for the self-checkout machines. This is what Jon refers to as Outsourced Caringâ„¢, when a company cannot be bothered anymore with basic service and hires someone else to do the caring for them. It’s why you’re always getting transferred to someone else when you call customer service, because the person who answered the phone doesn’t get paid to care.

In this instance they are so fed up with caring that they’ve hired ROBOTS.

Now, I understand why self-checkout machines are a good idea. Ideally they’re supposed to save the store money because you’re doing the work someone else would have to be paid to do, and eventually this might trickle down and affect the price of those pickles you just bought. But this is PLANET EARTH where no such thing as IDEAL actually exists, and these particular self-checkout machines are so fundamentally broken that it takes the average person no less than 15 minutes to pay for an apple.

So it’s finally my turn to walk up to a machine with my bulky basket and jittery child, and I start to panic a little bit because I haven’t ever had to operate this towering piece of crap while also trying to manage a toddler. With limbs. And a brain independent of mine that operates those limbs. And at first, everything goes okay, I scan a box of cereal and it reads aloud a price. But then Leta touches that box of cereal with her finger and all of a sudden the machine starts to have a seizure.


But the cereal is still sitting in the bag, I have not taken it out, so this machine has clearly lost its mind.

Not knowing exactly what to do, I remove the cereal and then put it back again, just to make the machine happy. But apparently the machine was mistaken. That is not what it wanted at all. It wanted me to re-scan the item, or excuse me, RE-SCAN THE ITEM! RE-SCAN THE ITEM! as clearly its voice has been programmed by someone who forgot to turn off caps-lock.

I gladly re-scan my box of organic cereal only to be told to PLEASE WAIT FOR ASSISTANCE! and then I hear a loud voice over my right shoulder scream, “TELL YOUR KID TO STOP TOUCHING THE MACHINE!” And the word KID is pronounced like it is some sort of vaginal discharge.

I look down to see that Leta has rested her hand on what looks like a railing but what is apparently not a railing at all. It is a test! A test to see if she will be tempted by its resemblance to the railing along the stairs at home and reach out to touch it. And because it is illegal to shock anyone under the age of eight, the machine instead punishes me. And forces me to rescan all of my groceries.

This goes on for twenty minutes: the machine yelling at me, me trying to please the machine, the machine giving up and having the human yell at me about my kid. Around and around we go because every time Leta even so much as looks at the machine it tells the human that we’re cheating. Until finally I go to scan my debit card AND IT CANNOT READ IT. That’s when the human is forced to care and walks over to manually finish the checkout for me, and it is obvious she is not happy about having to care, it was not a part of her training.

Oddly, I’ve never been trained to tell someone that their machine needs a right good fucking, but I manage to do it as if everything in my life has been leading up to this exact moment.

  • Squealbox

    2007/11/27 at 11:09 am

    It must be WAL-MART! I hate that freakin’ store!! Nothing but frustration…the stupid self check out machines NEVER work properly. They have 23 check out lanes but only 2 are staffed with humans, the poor customers are forced to use the always lousy, stress inducing self check out machines. I feel your pain Heather. I have stopped giving Wal-Mart my money because they don’t deserve it.

  • Vee

    2007/11/27 at 11:10 am

    You’ve hit upon one of my biggest pet peeves. Not only are self-checkouts an abomination, but grocery stores continue to build 12 checkout aisles even though they never open more than 3 at a time. And you can’t fit yourself and a shopping cart into the checkout aisles. They want to give the illusion of many checkout aisles, but in reality I have to make a decision upfront: do I want to go in before or after my cart…and if you go in first but have left something near the back–oh well, you’ll never get it. If they’re going to use self checkout and close all their aisles they need to remove about 6 of them and make the aisles wide enough that you can walk beside your cart. A pointless rant, but one I think of every time I go to the store. I usually refuse to self-checkout…I use the time waiting in the one long line for a real person to read all the gossip magazines. It’s sort of fun. Unless I’m buying ice cream.

  • Polly

    2007/11/27 at 11:07 am

    i love how you got all english sounding – it adds weight i think.

  • Sabrina

    2007/11/27 at 11:08 am

    This is reminiscent of every experience I’ve ever had with the self check out. Even without having to manage a child, my brain often oozes out of my ears, I break into a cold sweat, and go completely fucking postal every time I have to deal with it. And the lazy “attendant” is the same in every store in every part of the country; acts as if you have ruined his/her entire life by requiring assistance with a machine that is incapable of functioning the way it was designed.

    Sometimes it is necessary to put people in their place, and in this situation it sounds like it was absolutely warranted. Good for you.

  • barbie2be

    2007/11/27 at 11:06 am

    i hate those freakin’ self check out machines. if i get to the front of the store and the only have those and a long line for the ONE actual person manned check out, i will leave my cart in the line and just leave. i will go out of my way to go to some other store that has humans doing the check out and force THEM to care.

  • b*babbler

    2007/11/27 at 11:05 am

    Perhaps we should all band together, kidnap the CEO’s of said evil conglomerates and chain them for hours on end to their useless machines, where they will be forced to process cart after cart of groceries (most, of course, should be unlabeled produce) while dealing with our crazy toddlers (who should, of course, be hopped up on a bowl of pure refined sugar in preparation.)

    And just for good measure, they should, of course, be chained slightly out of reach of the chocolate bars, left tantalizingly close to little toddler hands.

    Do you think, then, we might get some real, live cashiers again? (Even if they do gab endlessly about ohmygawdJessica’slittlebrothersnewcar with their fellow cashiers whilst burying our bread under the 15 cans of soup.)

  • Anonymous

    2007/11/27 at 11:04 am

    Love it!

    You are lucky that Leta wasn’t climbing the candy rack that is strategically placed right next to the self checkout lane! Mine would have been.

    Technology is so fun!

  • Anonymous

    2007/11/27 at 11:03 am

    OMG, that happens in Minnesota too, to all us nicey-nice Scandihoovians.

    Those machines are surely the work of the devil.

  • Jameykay

    2007/11/27 at 11:03 am


  • Mo

    2007/11/27 at 11:04 am

    The self-checkout machines never fail to piss me off every single time I use them. I feel your pain.

  • Nickie M

    2007/11/27 at 11:03 am

    Well clearly you and your adorable daughter needed putting in your places 😛 The thing that gets me about those self-checkouts is that they clearly don’t trust you to scan everything yourself, hence all the weighing things, but yet the store makes you try it anyway. It sounds like something I’d do to my fiancé…

  • JennB

    2007/11/27 at 11:03 am

    I certainly hope that the rest of your holiday didn’t involve any other stranger screaming at you. What a pain in the ass.

    I love Outsourced Caring ™. Genius.

  • CarrieICL

    2007/11/27 at 10:58 am

    Sooner or later, those self-serve checkouts will just scan our brains directly. That’ll be much more convenient.

  • jess

    2007/11/27 at 10:59 am

    i let my kids scan the groceries at stores that have these. they have to behave in the store to earn the privilege and they enjoy it. would leta be down with that?

  • Strizz

    2007/11/27 at 10:59 am

    That guys teeth bother me

  • Sarah

    2007/11/27 at 11:12 am

    I despise those damned self checkers so much that I will stand in an extra long line with ALL MY KIDS with me. I will stand in the 18 minutes long wait line with a 8,7,4,and 2 year old before I use one of those cursed self checkers. I HATE THEM. They are the bane of my existence. If I wouldn’t get arrested I would attack on with a baseball bat. I even tried to use one once but my 8 year old accidently touched it and then they think I have bought 85 pounds of oranges. Seriously. I HATE them and avoid them at all cost.

  • Dawn

    2007/11/27 at 11:11 am

    You are one brave woman! BRAVE. I am freakishly afraid of those self-satanic checkout lanes. Brave I tell ya!!

  • Sandra

    2007/11/27 at 11:12 am

    Gah. I have *never* used a self-checkout. Because I’m pretty sure they’ve all got hidden cameras to capture the hilarity (for others, not the user) that must ensue from trying to scan all 6 sides of a box of cereal 18,000 times.

  • Joy

    2007/11/27 at 11:14 am

    I must have a t-shirt emblazoned with:

    “Outsourced Caring”!

  • Chris Alexander

    2007/11/27 at 11:15 am

    I’ve dealt with those machines at Home Depot. They are like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld! To operate them you have to put yourself in the mindset of a robot. That seems to work for me. Never tried it with a toddler though! I can just imagine.

  • mk

    2007/11/27 at 11:17 am

    I always wonder if the self-checkouts are actually saving the store any money in the long run, due to A) the number of times a human has to come over and fix something and B) the huge potential for Produce Fraud. I’m not entirely proud of myself for admitting this, but if a person wanted to, she might notice that, say, bananas are extremely cheap, whereas, say, pomegranates are extremely un-cheap. And if a person memorized the PLU code for bananas, she could just type that in and then weigh the pomegranates.

    Of course, then you have to deal with the machine shouting “Please place your BANANAS on the belt!” across the store. (It’s the same in Spanish, sadly, although my first-year Spanish book led me to believe it should be platanos.)

  • acm

    2007/11/27 at 11:18 am

    I don’t know about everybody else’s nerve, but the grammatical fussbudget in me suggests that you look up the word “enormity” because it means something entirely different from “enormousness” (although after your experience, that distinction may blur somewhat, heh).

    outsourced caring is a brilliant concept, encapsulating much that makes one want to bite people….

  • Mili

    2007/11/27 at 11:20 am

    There’s no such thing as a self-checkout here. At least not yet, but I’ll be sure not to try them.
    People are supposed to do that, why is that we want to keep people away from people so much? Jeez.

  • Dawn

    2007/11/27 at 11:21 am

    OMG, our Home Depot is like that; two checkouts that are never open, and 4 self-scan checkouts, one of which is always broken. And then you get people trying to buy wood and pipes and things that don’t scan through the self-scan checkout, and they need a cashier to stand next to them and do it for them, while 20 other people wait for that single cashier to come help scan their items.

  • Rosane

    2007/11/27 at 11:21 am

    Hi Heather,

    I h8te the self-checkouts. I make a point not to use them, thinking that I can send a message to Corporate that I won’t have their not caring. Most probably than not, all I accomplish is feeling self-righteous about making a decision. It’s the least I can do.


  • Mackenzie

    2007/11/27 at 11:21 am

    I hate those machines too – and now after reading your story and imagining working one of those machines with a child in tow, I think I’ll add a few years onto our planned start date of having children, LOL.

  • Judy

    2007/11/27 at 11:22 am

    Even my teenage CHILDREN will not use one of those things. And they like to mess with electronics! I have never, ever, ever used one and not required the assistance of the blob in charge of straightening out things when you screw them up. They always make it your fault, but you know it’s just that the machines are screwy…

  • I am

    2007/11/27 at 11:22 am

    Please deport me now.

  • boxy brown

    2007/11/27 at 11:22 am

    I agree, those self-checkouts are idiotic. I mean, people are idiotic, too, but at least you can argue with them.

    And whoever made the observation about the 12 checkout lines, 9 of which are closed – amen. Target has like 23 checkout lines. WTF?!?

  • Wacky Mommy

    2007/11/27 at 11:22 am

    Don’t look up *shit* for anyone. The way you throw words around is an amazing and glorious thing.

    I can’t use self-serve at all when the kids are with me, cuz they jump up on the machine and do a merry little dance, then the one, sad lonely clerk gets upset and has an “episode.”

  • [michele]

    2007/11/27 at 11:22 am

    I am afraid of those self-checkout machines and I refuse to use them. Refuse.

    We have one at our library too – the librarians get very testy when you won’t use the machine.

    Don’t totally knock Outsourced Caringâ„¢; it’s great when it pertains to in-laws.

  • dooce

    2007/11/27 at 11:23 am

    e·nor·mi·ty [i-nawr-mi-tee]

    1. outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness: the enormity of war crimes.

    2. something outrageous or heinous, as an offense: The bombing of the defenseless population was an enormity beyond belief.

    3. greatness of size, scope, extent, or influence; immensity: The enormity of such an act of generosity is staggering.

    fussbudget that.

  • Sarah

    2007/11/27 at 11:24 am

    PS…Im going out on a limb here and guessing you mean walmart. Then again in SLC it could also be a few other enormous food stores. Anyway, my almost 9 year old son was a lot like Leta. I have PTSD from his toddler days. One day in walmart he disappeared. He was 3 and had to walk with me because my 2 year old was in the cart (yes I realize this story could be an argument for spacing children). I FLIPPED OUT. The announced it over the store and look for him over the cameras. They found him. He was CLIMBING up the front of the donut case. At that time I didnt let my kids eat things like donuts so I suppose he saw a chance at both freedom and sugar and went for it.

  • Sadie

    2007/11/27 at 11:24 am

    Oh, I hate those machines. They make me shiver, and always ALWAYS find something to yell at me about.

  • Laura

    2007/11/27 at 11:25 am

    And it speaks to the strikingly unfairness of the world, because I’m pretty sure that assclown Spencer has never, ever had to use self-checkout.

  • Jodie

    2007/11/27 at 11:25 am

    Here’s the ‘burbs of Dallas TX, we have one grocery store chain that has NO self-checkout lanes… Tom Thumb. But due to coupon doubling and other things like saving money we usually go to Kroger which has a bunch of the robotic self-check things. They usually work OK, but I don’t have a small child either. I prefer a real person, but often there are only 1-2 lanes with a checker available. I’m a computer person, but I do Customer Service at my company, so I’m always appalled by the poor customer service at: grocery stores, the US postal service, cell phone companies and many retail stores especially Sears (I don’t shop there anymore due to that.) I wish I could go without shopping all together and never need customer service again… I make my husband deal with the cable company… being on hold for an hour is another annoying thing.

  • Michykeen

    2007/11/27 at 11:25 am

    Okay, I kind of don’t mind the self checkout when it’s just little ol’ me and a couple cans of cat food. But the people who insist on trying to scan an entire week’s worth of groceries at those things should be drug out in the street and shot.

    Also, I can’t use one of them without thinking, “It puts the item in the bag, or else it gets the hose again!”

  • Cheryl

    2007/11/27 at 11:26 am

    Over here in England, self-check outs have hardly been introduced yet so we only have to deal with indifferent check-out staff providing “service” at only 3 out of 20 aisles. Please don’t add the demon machines to your list of exports !
    Er, I don’t understand the video clip at all. Is it related to the self-service machine monsters ?Cultural differences no doubt (confused Brit in London)…

    PS I worked in a supermarket on check-out as a teenager so feel qualified to say that Caring has been Outsourced.

  • Michykeen

    2007/11/27 at 11:27 am

    P.S. – I love you, Heather. You brighten my day with your words and rants and pictures of Chuck.

  • Chris

    2007/11/27 at 11:27 am

    Jesus, I hate those machines. The grocery stores I usually shop at do not have them (hence, I shop there more!) but the store closest to our house does. That is the emergency store, as in, “Crap, I forgot to get sour cream!” shouted mid-recipe. I’ve never had to do one of these runs with a preschooler in tow but still, even getting just three items, something always goes wrong. And yes, the cashier acts like you’re a total moron, it’s all your fault, and now her day is totally ruined.

    And heaven help you if you discover that the bread you’ve just scanned is totally moldy as you go to put in the bag. That’s a hanging crime.

  • Jeanette

    2007/11/27 at 11:27 am

    I steer clear of them every time. I panic at the thought of weighing my produce and then looking up the stupid numbers in the 100+ page book they have with codes. I just read someone’s rant in the comments about the aisles being too small and how they never have them all open…she is SO dead on.

    Stop & Shop JUST introduced an even LESS caring checkout maneuver. Grab a scanner and some bags when you enter the store. Scan your items and bag them as you shop. I’m really not kidding. No, seriously. Scan and bag your groceries as you shop. They do nothing except pocket your cash at the end. Damn you Stop & Shop!

  • Froger1995

    2007/11/27 at 11:30 am

    Ok, reasons why I LOVE the self checkout machine:

    1. I can avoid being stuck in line behind stupid people who STILL use checks in this day and age

    2. I can avoid being stuck in line behind stupid people who don’t know how to use the friggen card reader

    3. I can avoid being stuck in line behind stupid people who can’t seem to punch in their pin numbers correctly

    4. I can avoid being stuck in line behind stupid people who are too distracted by their kids to get through the check out line efficiently

    Sorry…but when you are a young, single, and childless…the rest of the world is stupid. Thank GOD for Outsourced Caring!

  • Alison

    2007/11/27 at 11:30 am

    What was the correlation between that video and your experience at the store?
    Outsourced Caring is great name for that, btw..thank you globalization…by the end of reading your entry I was so mad too..I was hoping for a step by step play of how you kicked the crap our of that machine…

  • Anonymous

    2007/11/27 at 11:30 am

    I always bring my own bags to the grocery store and OH does it drive those machines around the bend that I am not placing my produce in the EXACT SPOT where the official, state-sanctioned plastic bags are located. Always this breaks the machine. Always.

    Personally, I am not entirely against the concept of self-serve checkouts. Supermarket cashier is a shitty job anyway. But it’s one of those instances where the technology was deployed about 5 years before they were actually done fixing it.

    (P.S. They scream across the store for a reason – precisely to avoid the ol’ pomegranates/bananas switcheroo.)

  • Siobhan

    2007/11/27 at 11:31 am

    I have a love hate relationship with self-checkouts. The ones at Wal-Mart are crap, all the time, the ones at Home Depot are okay, and the ones at the grocery store always seem to work fine. UNLESS you are a wanna be greenie like me and try to use your reusable bags in the self checkout. Then it starts yelling at you “Place your items in the bag! Scan your items first!”, because it recognizes the bag as an item. So I froze in front of them and got all sweaty, much like you described in your post. All drippy down the neck. Lovely.

  • Angieg

    2007/11/27 at 11:33 am

    Wow, I’ve never seen anyone (need to) correct your grammar before. I have learned something about “enormity” and “enormousness” today.

    By the way, my daughter is asking for more pictures of Leta, since there haven’t been many lately. Thanks for the turkey and mashed potato-free story!

  • Libby

    2007/11/27 at 11:33 am

    I have a fantasy about a world where you can go throughout your ENTIRE day and not interact with ANYONE. Grocery store? Nope. Don’t have to interact there. Gas station? Nope. Buying clothes? Do it online. I think I could probably go from now until death and never deal with another human being face-to-face again.

    Disturbing. Deeply disturbing, because that’s not a fantasy world. I’ll pay $0.05 extra for pickles if I can interact with a human. I’m sure some sociologist out there is studying this as we speak, looking for a connection between our automated, humanless society and crime. Betcha a pickle.

  • Melanie

    2007/11/27 at 11:35 am

    I like how you use the “TM” after “Outsourced Caring”, as though you invented the phrase. I’ve heard others use the exact same term, without trying to claim ownership. Very clever of you to try though.

    And yes, self check-out sucks.

  • teresa

    2007/11/27 at 11:35 am

    If we could channel the collective rage aimed at self-check-out machines, surely we could end world hunger. So maybe they could be good for something?

    I strayed from my favorite grocery store once. I was lured by their ad for all the “10 for $10” crap that happened to be on my shopping list that week. When I got to what was supposed to be “My store,” I found 2 of the 12 on-sale items actually in stock. And the alternative brand of the rest was at least twice the price. What should have been an approximately $50-60 trip ended up costing me just under $100. Grrr.

    So now I go to Macey’s (honest, it’s a grocery store in Utah!) and nowhere else. In almost seven years, I cannot remember one single bad experience there. And they don’t even have a self-check-out stand.

  • Leonie

    2007/11/27 at 11:35 am

    I used one for the very first time at Boots today. I was queued up for the registers when this lovely lady came over to remind us that they now have self-check outs and would I like to use one?

    I quickly realised that I’d be quicker in the self-check out department than in line waiting, because I was the only one giving it a go, and that shopping assistant? She was just the person to work that damn machine for me. Ha. In your face, stupid computer Boots!

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Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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