Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Rage against the machine

My new life as a lowly cashier proceeds apace and today I learned about The Numbers. Specially, the numbers that I am being judged by, which are the IPM (items per minute) that I'm scanning through the machine, the CPH (customers per hour) and the TTPC (tender time per customer).

To be successful in my new career as a minimum-wage worker bee at a grocery store, I must meet certain acceptable standards for these numbers.

I am currently scanning 20.86 items per minute. That number needs to be 26 or higher, I've been informed. And my "tender time per customer" - the amount of time I spend scanning your purchases and taking your payment - must be decreased to 60 seconds or less. I'm currently at 61 seconds.

What this means in the real world is that if you show up at my check-out stand with 100 items in your cart, I need to scan all of those items and have your payment in my hot little hand in less than a minute. Failure to do so will result in a lower TTPC score!


As I tried to digest this information, it occurred to me that each time a customer waits until all the items are scanned before starting to dig into their wallet or purse for payment, I'm being punished for their lack of foresight. If they spend 30 seconds digging around for change in the bottom of a purse, my numbers are going south. If they present a handful of coupons, woe is me.

What the machine doesn't measure is whether you smile, and whether you're polite, whether you make eye contact, whether you seem genuinely interested in your customers - or not. It doesn't measure personality, or whether you're in a good mood and treat customers right. All it measures are the raw facts of the transaction, as if the cashier was also a machine and not a human being.

The machine doesn't measure accuracy when giving change and handling payments, though it records each and every split second you have the till drawer open. The longer it's open, the worse your numbers are. Does the company not want me to be careful when I give change?

(An interesting aside: I was taught a cashier trick today to get around this: You let the drawer pop open, then immediately slam it shut, fooling the machine into thinking that your transaction is complete. Then you can go back and make change without fear of being punished.)

My supervisor informed me today quite gravely that if I don't improve The Numbers, the company will have to let me go. Apparently they're not getting their $7.35 cents an hour's worth.

My life has been reduced to a set of three numbers.

Four numbers, actually. The other number is that $7.35.

How much can a company rightfully expect out an employee for so little money? I'm currently serving about 31 customers per hour. How much higher could that number possibly be? Many of those customers have a hundred items or more in their cart. I'm not sure it's physically possible to move much faster than I already am. There are some areas where I could improve my time (learning produce numbers by heart would help). Even so, those items will only go through the scanner just so fast.

It's not the mechanics that bother me. It's the fact that I'm being judged by an impersonal machine. Yet, we're all being judged by these impersonal machines in one way or another as companies seek to extract increasing amounts of labor out of smaller parcels of time, all in the name of efficiency and higher profits. If the employees could share in those profits, perhaps that would motivate them to care more about The Numbers. But they don't share in the profits.

If it should turn out that I'm incapable of moving faster, there's plenty of others standing in line, waiting to get their foot in the door, waiting to do my job better and more efficiently and give the company what it wants.

It's a brave new world - and not for the faint at heart.


  1. That is absolutely insane, and exemplifies what is wrong with retail industry. I'd rather have someone smile and be polite and accurate than rush through as though I'm wasting their time. Heaven for I'd the customer should be satisfied!

  2. Now I know why the checkout clerks are so rarely friendly to me. First of all I hate shopping, so I put it off until I have no choice. Of course, I'm buying tons of things. Secondly, I insist on using cloth bags, which definitely slows down the process. The only thing I can say on my behalf is that I always have my card ready. Oh, and I don't use coupons.