Consorting With Make-Believe Women

            IVR in the form of retail checkout can be just as frustrating as the touch-tone variety.  The Kroger near my home is where I do most of my shopping.  About ten years ago, Kroger launched a shopper loyalty program that included a bar-coded “Kroger Plus Card.”  This card is scanned along with one’s groceries, providing the chain a record of the visit and item level detail of the purchases.  The data are used, often through third-party marketing services companies like Catalina or Nielsen, to analyze consumer buying behavior. Privacy advocates fear these data will enable the pursuit of other nefarious schemes, but for now, Kroger uses it to identify and incentivize lost customers, luring them back to the store with ten-dollar coupons.  The consumer incentive to allow this blatant, if innocent, invasion of privacy is the awarding of promotional price reductions on specially tagged items.  In essence, if you don’t scan the card each trip, you’re overpaying for your groceries. 

About five years ago, my store installed four self-service checkout lanes.  These replaced four of the traditionally manned lanes and are under the command of a Digital Dominatrix who forces adherence to a rigid set of behavioral standards. There’s a touch-screen monitor, under which is situated a scale/scanner combination.  There’s a secondary scale/shelf with several wire racks, each holding open a stack of flimsy plastic bags, all of which is mounted atop this scale. This is for the purpose of keeping the shoppers honest.  The scale knows the weight of each item scanned, and upon scanning, the Dom behind the curtain says, “Please put the item in the bag.”  The scale expects to soon receive something that weighs precisely what your just-scanned can of tuna weighs, the assumption being that if you scanned it and the scale receives something of its weight, you aren’t ripping them off for a ninety-five-dollar tenderloin.  If the scale doesn’t register the addition of the scanned item to the bag, the Dom again urges “Please put the item in the bag.”  Disappoint her a second time, and she clamps her figurative knees together, effectively shutting down all further stages of the relationship.   Enter the Officer of the Deck, an ubercashier who monitors it all from a pulpit in the center of the stations.  In addition to having a fat ring of keys that unlock various parts of her, he knows the secret codes that can reawaken her mojo.  Unless he is helping another hapless customer, he comes over to rectify the situation and put things right. 

The Digital Dom behind the curtain is probably a good thing for first-time users or cyberphobes, but she wears out her welcome in a hurry.  Although the system would be virtually idiot-proof without her incessant harping, Kroger has done everything within its power to make it more stupid than necessary, and that gives me the redass—starting with the opening screen.  There’s a big square on it that reads “Touch here to start.”  This wakes up the Dom, and she intones, “Welcome, Kroger shopper!  Please scan your Kroger Plus Card.  If you don’t have a Kroger Plus Card, please scan your first item.”   

If you have been there before, or you know what a scanner is, or you notice the other people dragging stuff across the glass window—in other words, if you are intelligent enough to be away from home unattended, you ought to be smart enough to swipe your first item across the glass.  Well guess what happens if you stroll up and swipe your first item across the glass?  Absolutely nothing.  You MUST, you see, first touch the screen to awaken Madame Instructo, whereupon she launches into her pseudo-friendly chant, “Welcome, Kroger shopper!”  This in itself isn’t terribly offensive.  It’s just stupid.  The offensive part is that the speakers for the three other stations, all within twelve feet of your ears, independently assault their respective customers, and you along with them, with the same litany, creating a needless, out-of-synch, abrasive cacophony of repetitive messages.  Home Depot’s equivalent system is blissfully silent.  You need neither “press here” to start, nor suffer an assault of instructive announcements. If you walk up to it and scan a box of four-inch deck screws, it somehow deduces that you must want to buy a box of four-inch deck screws.   Predictably, it registers each successive item in your order until you touch “Finish & Pay.”  Granted, you have to be able to read to get out of Home Depot by yourself, so I can only conclude that Kroger thinks its customers are either stupid or illiterate or both.  Further proof of this is seen in the instructions I received on my second use of the system.  I bought an eight-pack of Bounty paper towels.  I scanned it, and the shrew commanded me to “Please put the item in the bag.”  This “item,” roughly the size of a bale of hay, wasn’t about to go into a bag that could barely accommodate a loaf of rye.  


“Do I look like an idiot?” I shot back at the voice in the speaker. 

“Please put the item in the bag,” she demanded in a tone that implied growing impatience, then she abruptly called a halt to our fragile relationship. I looked at the screen, which registered, Towels, Bounty, 8 PK.  If she knew it was an eight-roll bundle of Bounty, SHE must be the idiot.  I looked over at the key ring & code guy with an expression half quizzical, half redass, whereupon he sprang from his pulpit and unlocked the logjam with an apology as though he were somehow responsible.  “Sorry about that, sir.”   

I’ve grown accustomed to the senseless delay each time I try to get beer past the Digital Dominatrix.  Scan a six-pack and everything shuts down.  A light or alarm or something goes off in the key guy’s command center.  He hobbles over and asks to see your ID, because she demands that he tell her your date of birth via a special pad he summons up on the touch screen.  I’ve been drinking beer since the Earth’s crust was cooling, but this guy has to check my ID and tell the imaginary lady my birthday so she’ll let me pay and escape the sound of her harping.  As I wait to have my age blessed, she drones on incessantly from the other three stations, each with its own mix of her limited vocabulary. This consists of: 


“Do you have any coupons?” 

“Please select your method of payment.” 

“Please follow the instructions and take your receipt.” 

“Thank you for shopping at Kroger!” 

That’s not the worst of it.  I scan my card on each of my twice weekly trips.  The same system that controls “that woman” knows who I am, where I live, what I eat and drink, can probably calculate my liver enzymes, and knows that I have transacted with her hundreds of times since her arrival.  I know how she works, and I am confident that I could get from start to finish without her vocal assistance.  Do they think I am an idiot?  I have left messages for the president of Kroger Atlanta, suggesting to him that, by the fifth or sixth time a cardholder uses the system, he’s probably got the drill down cold.  Isn’t there some way to shut her up?  I’ve gotten no response yet.

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IVR Frustrations