An unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation

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.

  • Tim

    Heather, run, DON’T WALK, and get “Outsourced Caring” trademarked. I’m serious. You guys could make a boatload going around to Fortune 500 companies doing “Outsourced Caring” seminars and trainings. WOW.

    Seriously, I’m sorry you had the experience. I’m sure we can figure out some way this is all Jon’s fault. 🙂

  • Scott

    This reminded me of the story about the guy arrested recently at a Home Depot.

    Glad you only had a box of cereal 🙂 Since I learned a long time ago not to take my 4 year old to the store, I use the auto-checkout all the time. I can’t imagine shopping with a on-the-loose 4 year old. You are a brave woman!

  • What I love (hate) about those machines is the way they breed a never-ending line of critics behind the poor person checking out. You’re trying to scan your tampons or whatever, the machine is screaming at you about said tampons, and there’s a line of 10 people behind you, all glaring at you as if they know EXACTLY how to make the machine operate PERFECTLY. And then, without fail, each of those people gets up to bat and has just as much trouble as the person they just scorned. The cycle never ceases.

  • “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.”

    I don’t think I have ever laughed harder…thank you.

  • Yikes!

  • Missypotamia

    I tried to by condoms at a self check out machine at my local grocery store once.(Immature considering that I am all about the safe sex, and am 26 years old- meaning I should have come to terms with the fact that Im having sex in the first place… but thats a whole other story.) In the end it took 3 people 10 minutes to help me pay for my stupid box of condoms. I am convinced that this is god punnishing me for having premarital sex.

  • heatherp

    Since I lack a child to handle or the budget to buy much at any given time, my issue with the self-checkouts is different. Reagan taught us all a great lesson about the “miracle” of the trickle down: that it is hardly a miracle, or even functional for the average person. The minor product price decreases that self-checkout stands represent are negligible. What really happens is CEOs save money and boost profit margins while decreasing local employment opportunities. The only miraculous or awe-inspiring thing about this scenario is that we’ve been duped into not only padding their pockets by shopping at their stores, but also becoming the low wage labor they refuse to employ. It’s magic! Wheee!

  • Sarah

    This recalls the time I got stuck in the endless UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA / ITEM HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM BAGGING AREA loop. The pain!

  • As frustrating as it is, I still find those automated machines much more competent than most grocery store employees.

  • Fight the machine, Heather. I’ve found that a quick thwap to the side will get the cashier to help you much faster than loudly arguing with the annoying mechanical voice calling you a liar.

  • It depends on the machine. At Kroger, I prefer the self-checkout, as their machines work well and I can complete my purchase, even with daughter in tow, quicker than waiting for one of the few clerks.

    However the machines in Wal-Mart are more frustrating and useless than Windows ME was. A line 20 people deep is faster than using a self-checkout machine at Wal-Mart.

  • Heidi

    I remember thinking how hard it would be to raise a child. The tantrums. The illnesses. The various dangers from which to protect them. It never occurred to me that taking a toddler to the grocery store would be tremendous task! Then there are some (like me) who end up taking two….or three….or God forbid even more!

    You’re a brave sole to attempt self checkout with a toddler!

  • Broomhilda

    Who the Hell is Heidi?

    Okay, so I’m an old fart grandmother who has to agree with Froger. I only run into these machines when I go to a Large City, rather than the small town I live in. And I do okay with them now that I’ve figured out to have my store card and debit card READY!

    And, maybe it’s a Southern thing, but the checkers ignore the customer as they are pulling the items through and scanning them, and Talk To The Bagger!!! Usually about what is happening in high school, or flirting with them. So, you are mostly totally ignored. I hate that more than using the scanner. So, I choose Outsourced Caring (brilliant term, by the way), rather than No Caring At All.

    And, Heather… I love, love, love your new format.

  • i seem to have the magic touch when i use the self-checkout machines: maybe one time out of every five i get a green screen of death; this is a lot like the blue screen of death, only it’s green and all it says is some error message.

    this always happens when i’m on the last item and have already got everything bagged too. the “overseer” comes over, clucks a bit, sighs, gives me the stinkeye, resets the computer, and makes me go to another register.

    and don’t even get me started on the bagging. yes, IT’S ALREADY IN THE GOD DAMNED BAG.

    i think the sole purpose of self-checkouts is to make sure that the whole population of america is put on anxiety medication.

  • Surely it makes you miss Gelson’s in LA. I don’t care that I had to pay higher prices, I usually went to Gelson’s after work because I was tired and they would not only have every register staffed, they would take the groceries out of the cart for me, bag them and put them into my car.

  • Mary

    I hate those things. They don’t really save anyone any time, and I can’t imagine they’re saving the stores all that much time or money, either. And they certainly aren’t saving anyone’s sanity, from the sounds of it.

    They are, however, saving my brother a few bucks a month on grapes, as he’s got some cockamamie grape-weighing scam going at a Cub Foods by his college in MN…

  • Colleen34

    This happened to me too. The twins I nanny for (who were four at the time) wanted to help. I thought it would be okay. So the kid scans the item and places it in the bag and slightly leans on the scale. Of course when she leaned back the ITEM REMOVED FROM BAGGING AREA! alarm went off. The watcher said I couldn’t let her help. Then she got mad because they were standing to close to the bagging area, while I checked the items.

    I really like the idea of self-check out when you only have an item or two.

  • KiKi

    My mother gets so excited about self check outs. Last time I went to a store with her that had them (it was my first experience with one in that store and she was going to teach me how to use it) she literally shoved me out of the way b/c she wanted to “play” with the machine. Then my father couldn’t understand why he couldn’t take the packed bags off the carousel before I had paid for them. I haven’t been back to that store in over 6 months. I know the next time I go, I’ll still have my mother pushing my out of the way b/c she wants to play even after she’s finished checking herself through.

  • I love the self-check out, usually the self-check out attendent ends up doing the whole transaction for me, after continually getting the ‘please wait for asistance’ notice about 20 times.

  • Julie

    Good God, this just happened to me yesterday. My two year old kept trying to climb up on the bagging area so she could “help” me and it kept screwing everything up. I was so pissed and so frustrated at the experience that I was tempted to leave the two year old with the unhelpful sales staff.

  • I am clearly an oddball. (No, really? You don’t say!)

    Our local store never has enough non-express lanes open, especially at the hour I like to shop (read: 2 a.m.) and the self-checkouts have been, inexplicably, limited to the hours of 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and ten items only. And even then, only 2 or 3 of the 12 in the store might ever be open at one time.

    Because I have figured out the machine, have learned how to put my items on the belt in a way that makes scanning quickly and easy (something I’ve done for years for cashiers) and use my own bags that bypass the scales completely, using the self-checkouts is almost always guaranteed to be faster for me than being waited on by someone who may well be working at 1/4 speed, wants to chit-chat (or wanted to chit-chat with the 3 people ahead of me, but not with me) and has to be told repeatedly how I prefer to have my items bagged. (Like with like, cold together, and no, you do not put dishwashing liquid or shampoo in the same bag with food or put 2 half gallons of anything in the same bag or put anything heavy on top of breads or fruits or chips or light bulbs, thank you very much.)

    But for 99% of my shopping experiences, I am completely denied.

    So apparently I need to move to Utah. I will do your shopping in exchange for not being restrained from the use of a working (standard implementation) self-checkout when I choose to use one. I don’t mind if the caring is outsourced, if I can just avail myself of the opportunity to be in its sphere!

    (On another topic, are the Daily Photo and Daily Chuck no longer meant to be in the RSS feed?)

  • Tara

    I don’t have a problem with self-checkouts that actually WORK. The ones at Food Lion do not work most (nearly all) of the time. Once, when I was having trouble with one, the attendant came over and literally smacked the machine to get it un-stuck, and it worked. If I’d known that all I had to do was beat the hell out of it, I would have done it myself–it sure would have made me feel better.

  • You are SO not alone in this. I never do the self-check correctly, therefore a human is always required to help me out, even if I’m only purchasing one item. I visibly tremble whenever I’ve attempted to use one, I’m so frightened of screwing it up.

    The only place in our town that has these lanes-of-the-devil is at Satan’s very own favorite store, Walmart, and I avoid going there anyway.

  • Oh this is bringing back such fond memories of when Home Depot introduced these suckas a few years back. I was so excited that I didn’t have to stand in line with the 85 contractors buying sheetrock. By the end of my 25 minute experience buying 4 items, I was so frustrated. Individually plucking my bikini line one hair at a time would have been less painful.

    We only have one grocery chain that had introduced the self checkouts in our area. I don’t shop there anyways because their food sucks. But I’m thinking I need to go check it out to see if they are run by robots now too.

  • C’tina

    Jon Spawn is supposed to stay home with her father. I rearrange my schedule so I don’t have to take my kids to grocery stores, lol. And trying to use one of those damed machines whilst supervising a small child….not unless one of us was in a straight jacket, because I’d surely be in one at the end of the ordeal.

  • kgr

    Thank you for perfectly summing up why self-checkout is one of the most annoying things ever to be invented. I cannot count the number of times that machine at Smith’s Foods has yelled, “Wait for customer assistance” and the “customer assistant” is off gossiping with another “customer assistant” and not paying any attention. It is instant frustration.

  • “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.”

    Do you get paid to leave smug comments randomly on the internet or is it a disability of yours?

    Heather, next time someone refers to Leta like that, you should let Leta bite them.

    My only gripe about self check out are the mouth breathing morons that go through with two carts full or groceries.

    Seriously, do you need an IQ above 100 to realize that is NOT going to make it quicker?

  • Personally, I’m still waiting for a drive-thru supermarket.

    Maybe I should just suck it up and order it to be delivered.

  • Rachel

    I’m supposed to be one of the young and better-with-technology types (meaning that I have to show my parents how to open up an internet browser and where to type) and I still hate these machines. I went to a supersize walmart a few weeks ago (this is canada though, so our supersize walmarts are probably half the size of yours) and my soul was devoured by the machine. I was trying to buy one cd, just one item, and somehow the magnet deactivator thing killed my credit and debit card all in one go, after pulling my wallet right out of my hand and onto the magnet pad. I ended up stealing some money from my roommate to pay for it, but only after the attendant woman came over to look at me, sigh, and walk away.
    I was a cashier once and was forced to smile and make small talk. I didn’t care at all. Outsourced Caring is here to stay 🙂

  • I’m afeared of those machines.
    Even when I’m the only one there to screw it up.
    They are evil.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I’ve heard of “Outsourced Caring” before. A friend of mine in my Marketing class wrote a paper on it and that was the title. Sorry to burst your bubble.

    But as for the self checkouts, I really don’t like them. I’ve never seen them in a grocery store, that must be awful! The checkers at the store I shop at talks to me, someone bags my stuff and carries it to my car. I can’t stand pushing carts through snow. Oh, but I do have the same skinniness of the lane problem…

  • Jessica M.

    The first time my boyfriend went through a self-check out with me he kept moving the bags and the machine would go crazy. I had to keep saying “You’re making the machine angry!!!” Poor guy, he was just trying to help.

  • unfortuneatly customer service disappeared when the guy who pumps you gas did.

    why is it so passe to hire someone to say hello and smile at you when you’re buying something from their establishment.

    from austin tx.(customer service apathy capital of the world)

  • Laura

    I have never been in contact with a self checkout that has enough room to take all your items out of the cart. You have to totally reorganize your items after you take them out on that little area that is attempting to weigh everything. THEN, you can’t move anything back into your cart. It’s a constant juggle with organization and people waiting…constantly judging you on how dumb you are because the computer is yelling.

  • maggie

    1. self checkouts are a bad bad thing. dont use them.

    2. just my 2 cents but – you have got to stop letting leta rule! put her in the cart and fight her all the way thru it and the next time it will be less frustrating – or perhaps the time after that – consistancy is key!

    3. how did the onion dish come out?

  • nac

    What are you going to do if you ever have 2 kids?

    Good luck 🙂

  • Wow Heather, had I known that so many people who read this site had absolutely no concept or irony, I would have been demanding you publish hate mail everyday.

    Expect more email demands from me.

  • I use the self check-outs every time. Every time! You know why? Because the people who work at my neighborhood grocery store are so unbelievably rude that I will do anything to avoid them. Horrible, bitter people.

    The machines usually work pretty well because I don’t have a child-with-limbs in tow.

  • I will sheepishly admit that I *love* using the self-checkout machines because I never matured enough to stop being excited about getting to push the buttons all by myself. I find elevators really fun for the same reason.

  • My fondest self checkout memory is from college. The person in front of me was paying with a large jar of pennies, inserting them one at a time. And her total was something like 24.36, so every time she inserted a penny, the machine would say “Insert Cash.” Over and over and over again Insert Cash Insert Cash Insert Cash Insert Cash. And I had to wait in that line for about 25 minutes and listen to that sound bore itself into my brain. This was 7 years ago and I can still perfectly recall the voice.

  • megan

    My boyfriend insists on using the damn self-checkout every single time because he actually PREFERS no human interaction whatsoever. I think it proves my point that he has no soul, but he insists it is better. It must be because he thinks HE is in control of the machine.

    This is the same man who was once electrocuted by the automated ticket machine at the movies (which he OF COURSE prefers to the human behind the glass window) and refused to complain to the manager that his arm was paralyzed and in pain. Oh yeah, it charged his debit card, and didn’t give us any tickets.

    The machines are out to get us.

  • jen

    I avoid the self-checkout machines on principle because I’m not getting paid to do that kind of shit.

    That said, I used to get paid to do that kind of shit (I worked at Trader Joe’s for about two years) and it is sometimes much faster for me to do it myself than to wait for someone who would prefer not to.

    Poor Leta…sounds like she was behaving quite well, just standing there with her hand on the rail.

  • Sadie

    One time I was forced to use one of those self-checkouts at the grocery store and it did not HAVE a code for fennel. It just DIDN’T. And I stood there, bewildered, while the machine screamed at me and the asshole behind me mocked me, openly. Finally he got tired of waiting and went to the self-checkout in the next aisle. Within sixty seconds I heard his machine start shrieking at him too, and I took great pleasure in leaving my fennel on the conveyor belt, walking past that guy, and laughing at him. “Who’s so fucking smart now?!” It was worth abandoning the fennel to say that.

  • I don’t mind the self checkout machines particularly, but I do mind being forced to use them through passive-aggressive tactics.

    What makes me the angriest is the attitude of the employee assigned to the machines who is, without fail, incredibly inconvenienced that they should have to do any troubleshooting. Troubleshooting that is, by the way, part of the reason the employee is there given how simple-minded those machines are.

  • Theresa

    Oh that’s an awful story! I am so sorry they made you suffer like that.

    Personally I looooove the self checkout and I wish every store had them. I think they are fast and kind of fun! But, I have never had to deal with it while in care of a child. Self checkout is great- but the store should always have traditional clerks for those who want them.

    I also agree with a previous poster that the self checkout should be limited to 10 items or less. It’s meant to be fast, like an express lane… and don’t even get me started on people who go into express lanes with a cart full of stuff. The clerks should be required to ask them to leave the line!

  • You have my sympathy, Dooce. It isn’t that I have a toddler of my own, because I don’t. And it isn’t because I’ve ever used a self-checkout, because my town doesn’t yet have that kind of convenience. Not yet. I just understand.

  • Ginger

    One of the things I have always hated about the stupid machines is how they yell at you. The scream the price so that people back it the dairy section can see how much you spent on your eggs. I am just waiting for them to start yelling out what the items are as you scan them. Who knows, they might even add comments. I don’t doubt one day I will be forced to use one of these stupid machines and while scanning my merchandise I will hear “SUPER JUMBO TAMPONS! $5.98” or “RED WINE. $9.98” “Dark CHOCOLATE $4.68” “BEN AND JERRY’S $3.98” “YOU MUST BE PMSING!”

  • The first time I encountered one of those self checkout lines I pretty much had the same thing happen to me, what with the “touching of the machine accidently with my hands” and such. And I was probably seventeen instead of three. And I probably allowed the designated Non-Carer to snipe at me without saying a word.

    In contrast, a year or so ago I was in a regular checkout line at a supermarket in Pittsburgh when the sassy black girl who was my checker accidently locked the register as she was finishing up my transaction. Without a word, without any eye contact, without so much as a glance at the line of people approaching twelve deep behind me, she promptly leaned over her register on one elbow and started filing her nails, which were very long and very close to a shade I can only describe as Baby Shit Yellow. After a minute or two I asked “Is someone going to come open your register?” No response. Another minute goes by. “Hello?” Nothing. Finally, after a full eight minutes of me standing there trying to get her attention I just screamed “I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS. KEEP THE MONEY. OH AND BY THE WAY, YOUR NAIL COLOR IS HIDEOUS. BYE BYE!”

    So, yeah, I think I may have come to terms with Outsourced Caring, as you call it. It’s mostly better than the real deal.

  • Jill

    So nobody else thought the guy yelling at you to keep Leta off the machine was a huge dick? I would have stopped my entire transaction and had me some words with him. Why do people think it’s okay to do stuff like that?

    And yeah, the self checkout machines totally blow. I was excited to use them initially, but it always took me–an intelligent, technology savvy person–way longer than waiting in line because of the finicky machine. I actually wouldn’t mind Outsourced Caring so much if it wasn’t so damned inconvenient. Not in the grocery store, anyway. I still want people to care at, say, the doctor or dentist’s office.

  • Hey… the upside to the machines are that you normally wouldnt have to put up with some gum chewing, slack-jawed, snotty, prepubescent teenager rolling their eyes at you and your child while giving you your ‘customer service’…


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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