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Americans Have Been Cursing at Automated Checkouts Since 1937

Self-checkouts feel like a product of the disconnected Internet age, but Clarence Saunders pushed them nearly 80 years ago.
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University of Memphis Library

Who enjoys struggling with microscopic barcodes and unmarked bits of produce in the self-checkout lane? Nobody? Too bad; self-automated modules are here to stay. With a few exceptions, virtually every new grocery store in America is asking consumers to do a bit of work at the end of their trip, reducing face-to-face interaction with employees and, theoretically, overhead costs. (Though interestingly, supermarket labor spending has actually been on the rise for the last couple of decades.)

Self-checkout feels like a product of the disconnected Internet age, but in fact, the concept is nearly 80 years old. Next time you openly swear at a fritzing scanner, direct the sentiment at Clarence Saunders. Born 1881 to a Virginia tobacco farmer, Saunders spent a lifetime grasping for heights of shopping automation even greater than we know today, then falling and bootstrapping himself back up again and again.