The Home Depot Self-Checkout Machine That Wouldn't Take "No" For An Answer

Trying to collect some innocuous-sounding information from self-checkout customers, a self-checkout system at a Maryland Home Depot instead accidentally got itself embroiled in a privacy controversy.

The story began on May 8 when a woman visited a Baltimore Home Depot to buy a few odds and ends, including plants, pots and tile sealer.

According to what she told the popular consumer advocacy blog The Consumerist, "I went to the self check-out line because of the speed and scanned my items. Before I could indicate I was paying by cash, the machine wanted me to enter a zip code. I entered 11111 because it's really none of their business. The next screen wanted me to key in if my items were for home or business use. I had no ability to bypass this screen even though I did not want to answer this question." She soon left the store without her purchases rather than answer the question.

Home Depot officials have confirmed that the incident apparently happened, but they painted the entire incident as a computer glitch.

The glitch seemed to be that such surveys are only supposed to happen during non-busy times of the year and they are explicitly not supposed to happen during the hectic spring months. (Somehow, I don't think the woman's complaint would have been any different had this been October, but let's not go there.)

"Once a year in the fall, we ask customers if they'd like to provide their zip code in the checkout. We did learn that the function was activated early in some [machines]. We turned that off because spring is our busy season," said Home Depot spokesperson Ron DeFeo.

As for the core concern about customers having to answer these questions to pay for their purchases, DeFeo said the systems have opt-out options and that the customer might not have seen it.

Even if there had been an opt-out option, it seems unwise to put a survey (even a two-question survey) in front of the purchase process. Would a retailer ever have cashiers asking such questions before scanning through a customer's purchases?