Hell Hath No Fury Like a Consumer Chipped Off

Joel Hansen, a 45-year-old Texan, was visiting his local Wal-Mart last week to purchase some food at about 5:30 p.m..

After what everyone seems to agree was an unpleasant human-computer interaction, the self-checkout terminal had a smashed-in monitor, courtesy of the fist of the consumer.

Hansen was charged with criminal mischief by Tarrant County Sheriff deputies in Fort Worth on April 19.

The police version of events has the machine rejecting Hansen's debit card, but Hansen told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that that is not what happened.

His version of events?which has a very credible and familiar ring to it. "I had scanned a couple of items and it locked up. I tapped it and got it unlocked. I scanned a few more items when it again locked up," the paper quoted Hansen as saying. "I was tapping it again to unlock it when it shattered. It was a glitch."

The unit locked up and the customer found a physically helpful way to unlock it. Heck, if it works, stick with it. It gives a whole new meaning to Blue Screen of Death. In Texas, monitors should be forewarned that it might be Blue Screen Equals Death.

Of course, it is likely going to take quite a tap for a self-checkout machine to collapse, but it's hard to temper one's tap when those smug superior-than-thou displays declare in their omniscient way that you have done something wrong.

"It had locked up, and I was tapping on it when it shattered," he told the paper. "I even got glass in my finger." OK, so the checkout machine got a few licks in, too.

My favorite is what happened next. Let's tally this up. The self-checkout machine freezes?twice?and you have a hungry customer with blood oozing out of his finger.

"When it happened, I was expecting help or for them to move me to another checkout," Hansen said.

That last quote makes me wonder if this was his visit to a Wal-Mart. He was expecting help? Well, he got it. Employees offered no assistance other than asking him to wait there for the police to arrive. He declined the generous offer.

This interesting tale of the Texas tussle wouldn't have meant much had this column not discussed an incident a few months back when a Winn-Dixie customer threw a Bible at a clerk trying to register customers for a biometric payment system.

As kiosks, ATMs, self-checkout units and even drive-through automated supermarkets start to push human employees into the backroom, the bakery, the parking lot?anywhere but in the aisles helping customers?the ultimate reaction of consumers is up for debate.

When computers?such as POS (point of sale) systems?assist retail employees and then glitch, it's the employees who feel the frustration and are paid to deal with it.

But the latest round of self-checkout and kiosk systems fully replace employees, forcing consumers to deal with the machines themselves. It's the ultimate in frustration: Consumers drive to a public place and likely wait in various lines, all for the privilege of seeing a computer crash, most likely with their credit card maybe charged, maybe not.

Security won't let you leave?unless you want to risk a shoplifting charge?until the computer says it's satisfied with you.

The idea of kiosk in-aisle pre-sales support is great on paper, until you realize that this is the same technology that powers most vendors' automated tech support centers. Those usually revolve around an FAQ, which generally consists of 10,000 answers to questions you don't want to ask.

Every other month, some vendor calls us boasting of the creation of a database that uses regular English. Despite their claims, it invariably ignores the essence of the question and instead locks onto to any word it happens to recognize.

Kiosks armed with this capability had better watch out in Texas.