Situational Ethics at Home Depot

I love the automatic checkouts at Home Depot. There’s usually no line for them, so I can start my transaction right away. Even if it’s slow and inefficient, I’m actually doing something, rather than waiting behind another customer. I like being in control!

There’s a balance of design goals at work in these monsters – standalone/simplicity (and by that I do not mean ease-of-use), theft prevention, staff reduction. Those goals are not all met very well, and they are sometimes at odds with each other.

After using this for a couple of years, I’ve figured out that to start to check out, you must place all your items on a tray to the left of the screen (this isn’t so obvious). You pick your items, one at a time, pass them over the scanner, and then place them in a bag on the tray to the right of the screen.

The trays on either side contain scales. Your items are being weighed, with the left and right being compared. You can only have one in the air (i.e., not in the bag and not on the to-be-bought tray) at a time. And you must stow it in the bag before picking up the next one. This is not beep-beep-beep rapid scanning. It feels very silly and slow, but that’s what the system wants you to do.

If you try to go too fast, the system warms you. “Please re-place item in bagging area.” It’s far from foolproof (not that the users are fools, but the users can fool it!); it often goes out of sync. The item it wants to be put in the bagging area is already in the bagging area. Often we have to flag down the cashier at the master station who is “supervising” the four self-check devices (usually trying to help poor first-timers, or calling out instructions from her station).

Anyway, I was plodding away with my purchase of 4 $0.69 switchplates the other day, and of course, we got out of sync. Everything was either in a bag or waiting to be scanned and I was being given instructions about what to return to where, even though there was nothing that could be returned. In my attempt to mollify the system, I picked up one of my to-be-rung-up items and put it in the bag. That seemed to satisfy it. That left one remaining. I picked it up, scanned it, and put it in the bag. All four of the items were now in the bag. But I had only scanned three.

Screw this. I clicked “finish and pay” and ran through the payment swipe interaction (this takes place on another interface, about 5 feet from the first interface).

The machine, which represents Home Depot and its interests, didn’t want my $0.69 for my fourth item. It insisted that I put it in the bag without swiping it. Did I alert the supervising cashier so she could come over and rejigger the whatsit and charge me the right amount? I did not.

I was able to somehow justify this because it was the will of the machine; the error was not like an ATM that gives you two $20.00 bills stuck together; it was a richly interactive error – “put this in the bag, Steve” it told me… (but I never…) NO – PUT IT IN THE BAG NOW PLEASE. (okay, sir). The machine is the boss, but I’m responsible for knowing more than it about what is right and what is accurate?

Please don’t read this as some sort of attempt to rationalize something that is obviously wrong. We can get the Ethicist in here if we need to, but we all know what he’d say. I guess I’m more interest in the attributes of the exchange and how it influenced my own decision.

Of course, the fact that was $0.69 also is a factor. Do we want to call this stealing? If so, then the dollar amount shouldn’t matter? Although we’ve got a recent story where Wal-Mart is ignoring some sub-$25 shoplifting, so maybe there’s a sense that the amount does matter.

Presumably, I was doing a calculation of time, cost of goods, aggravation, and wrapping that up in a bit of self-justification and walking out with my extra (free!) switchplate because of that. These decisions are complex, with a lot of factors mixed in, in an organic (rather than linear) fashion.


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