When was the last time you saw a cash register in the supermarket? I mean a real one ——-
with buttons to push, and a cash drawer that flew open at the touch of the total button? Probably, not for a while.
……and its reader have taken over.
But it wasn’t exactly a flash revolution. Its patent was granted on October 7, 1952. Yes, that makes the barcode system 60 years old. The railroads were the first to use it, to identify boxcars. It didn’t show up in a store until 1974, and that was at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio where the first item to be scanned was a pack of Wrigley’s Gum.
But once the barcode got its foot in the drawer (get it? cash register drawer? Oh never mind) it insinuated itself into our culture, and not always for the better. If you ask me it’s made us fat and flabby, mentally —–and lazy.
Last Saturday, I was in my favorite dollar store where one line was very long and the other was just long. The barcode reader on the longer line was not working. The young man at the register started entering the numeric codes of items on the touch screen, but his frustration bubble over and he walked off his post in search of the manager, uttering “I’m not going to punch in numbers all day.”
Initially I wrote it off as another example of the softness of today’s youth but then I realized that the UPC codes are long strings of numbers, requiring more concentration than punching in 25 cents. But still I was tempted to tell him my story. Then I realized it would come across as walking ten miles each way to get to school – uphill – in a snowstorm, so I decided to tell it here instead.
The year was 1965 and it was my first summer job – at the 5&10, the old version of the dollar store. To be precise, it was at a Woolworth’s,
and the store was located
on 59th Street, right off Columbus Circle.
Being in the heart of Manhattan’s office district had its good points and its bad points. The mornings were kind and gentle since all the secretaries and file clerks were ensconced in the tall office buildings. We spent our time tidying up and replenishing our counters from the inventory stored behind them, interrupted only now and then by a solitary customer. But come lunchtime and whoa – who let the dogs out?
The store would fill up, and it seemed like they’d all come running to me. I had the fortune (won’t say mis….) to man the cosmetics counter. Back in those days, there were no central checkouts at the exit. You paid for each type of good at the counter where you found it. Each cashier stood in the middle of her island, just her and her cash register, surrounded by whatever goods they were responsible for.
So there I was with outstretched hands offering me bottles of nail polish, tubes of lipstick, face powder compacts, nail files, eyelash curlers, mascara, and on and on. The good thing was most customers only had one or two items. The bad thing was the cash register.
You see, the cash resisters were big and clunky, made of iron, and nothing like the ones supermarket cashiers used. You needed strong fingers to depress the stiff mechanical keys.
See those keys. Some were dollar keys, some were tens keys and some were ones keys. The price had to be broken down – just like in math class. So if the price tag on a bottle of foundation said $1.79 you had to push on the $1 key, the 70 cent key and the 9 cents key, and when you totaled up the purchase, you still weren’t finished.
There was the matter of sales tax. You had to consult a tax chart and figure out how much tax had to be added. And hold on, when the customer paid, you had to make sure the tax amount, which was usually just pennies, was deposited separately in a slotted box attached to the cash register. Bags were paper back then, so you’d place the items in, tear off the stubby receipt, slip it in the bag, say thank you, and take the next items from the outstretched hands waving in your face. On and on it went, for the two to three hours of staggered lunch hours, usually from 11:30 to 2.
But I managed to hold up, maybe too well. My supervisor was impressed, too impressed. she switched me to the candy section. No, not boxed candies, bulk candies. At my new station, I was surrounded by glass cases filled with loose M&M’s Hershey kisses, jawbreakers, bubble gum, red hots,
and oh yes, did I mention the nuts? Cashews, peanuts, filberts, walnuts, alone or in a mix, all of which, like the candies had to be fished out with a silver scoop, weighed and placed in small white paper bags for discrete afternoon munching.
I learned to estimate weight well, for everyone wanted a different amount; a quarter pound of this,an eighth of a pound of that. There was no time for dumping it back and starting over. After weighing and bagging, it still had to be rung up and taxed, while all of a sudden, everyone had to get back to the office – now!
But I survived candy as well. My only break from the cash register came the morning I filled in at the lunch counter to make (yes, make) ice cream sandwiches. After all you couldn’t cut rapidly melting bars of chocolate-strawberry-vanilla ice cream, slap the striped slices between crispy waffle cookies and ring up a sale at the same time, could you?
Well —— maybe you could – if it had a barcode on it.