“But the computer never makes mistakes.”

In Tips and Hints on June 8, 2011 at 9:58 am

“Hold Fast” is a sailor’s expression for keeping faith and holding strong in the face of a challenge.

 You know the scenario.  You have played this out yourselves many times when you pled for help from customer service.  The company representative, tasked to “get rid of you” so they can get rid of the next customer, offers up bizarre explanations for the problem you experienced.  You are expected to accept these bizarre explanations as though they are entirely reasonable.

 This week, as I stood at the “express” checkout at my nearby mass food retailer, I witnessed the following scene play out.  Even though the bag of ice I hoped to purchase was melting faster than a polar ice cap in Al Gore’s back yard, I would not have missed this for anything.


I picked my bag of ice out of a freezer at my local mass food retailer (We will call the establishment “Why Me?”) and made my way to the express line.

“I win!” I thought as I saw there was a solitary patron at the counter.

She was a very attractive and cheerfully dressed woman in her late forties or early fifties.  The clerk at the counter was scrutinizing a receipt.

“I don’t see anything wrong here”, said the clerk.  “I know the addition is correct because this computer cannot make a simple addition mistake.”

"The computer can't make a mistake."

“Well”, said the customer, “I don’t see how five items, each costing 99-cents, adds up to $6.78.”

The customer had four cans of tuna and a package of sliced cheese laying neatly on the counter in front of her.  Obviously, there was tuna-melt on her menu.

“Oh, it’s probably because there’s a two-can limit on the tuna”, the clerk offered.  “You got two cans for 99-cents and the other two were charged at full price.”

“There’s no limit stated on the coupon”, replied the customer.  “Whenever you have a limit on the quantities, the coupon always states the limit.”

“Maybe it was an unstated limit?”  The clerk studied the customer’s face for a crack in resolve.

There was none to be seen.

“Unstated limit?  I’ve been shopping at Why Me? for years.  I’ve never seen an unstated limit.”  The customer was firm and spoke in a very controlled tone.

“Besides”, continued the customer, “the regular price of the tuna is $1.49.  If two cans were sold at 99-cents and two cans were sold at $1.49, the total with the cheese would be $5.95, not $6.78.  If there is a one-can limit, the total would be about $7.50.

The clerk stared at the receipt tape as though to will the numbers upon it to explain themselves.

When the numbers failed to offer an explanation, the clerk restated what was obviously her fallback position.  “All I know is that these computers never make mistakes.”

I began to smile.

The customer placed her items in a row.  While she did this, the clerk punched a few buttons on her checkout terminal.

“I made an adjustment”, the now-smiling clerk said. “The total comes to $6.28 and I owe you fifty cents.”

The customer sighed audibly.

“I have five items.  One-two-three-four-five.  Each item is on sale for 99-cents each.  Let’s say it is one dollar per item.  My total sale is one-two-three-four-five…dollars.  It is not $6.28.”

“Well, that certainly makes sense.  But my computer added them up to $6.28 and these computers never make mistakes.”

"Open the pod bay door, Hal."

The customer looked at me, then at my bag of ice.

“I am so sorry, sir”, she said to me.

I smiled broadly.  “You take all the time you want, ma’am.  I want to see how this ends.”

The customer turned back to the items on the counter.

“Look, I don’t want to pay less or more than I should for five items.  All of the items are advertised at 99-cents each.  I have five items.  The total cost should be $4.95, not $6.28 and certainly not $6.78.”

“Well, that’s what the computer says.”

It appeared there would be an impasse.  I mentally wagered that the customer would take fifty cents from the clerk and walk away shaking her head.  There was a long pause.  The clerk’s eyes gleamed in anticipation.

The customer looked at the clerk and back at the items standing in formation on the counter.

“Well, I am not paying $6.28 for five items priced at 99-cents each.  Look at my items.  Let’s count together, in dollars.”  The customer’s tone was pleasant and not at all demeaning or patronizing.

“One, two, three, four, five…dollars.”

The clerk nodded.  “I sure see what you’re saying here, but these computers just don’t make mistakes.

The customer closed her eyes briefly as though in prayer.  Water dripped on my shoes from my melting bag of ice.

The customer, realizing that the clerk was as mindless as the computer, finally offered up a reasonable solution.

“I have all of the items here.  You have the coupons.  Why don’t you just ring them up again and then you can void out the transaction afterward.”

The clerk sighed.  “Sure, but I don’t know what that will do for us.  These computers just don’t make mistakes.”

She began to swipe each item across the scanner.  Each time a can of tuna passed over the scanner, a “beep” sounded.  After each beep, the clerk scanned the appropriate coupon.

I watched, fascinated, as the total price was calculated.  Time froze as the final item was scanned.

* beep *

I glanced at the screen.  It read, “$4.95”.

The clerk opened the drawer and counted out the customer’s refund.

“I don’t know what happened the first time.  These computers just don’t make mistakes.  Maybe a coupon didn’t get scanned properly.  Still, the computer would not make a mistake like that either.”

She handed the customer a paper bill and some coins.

The customer turned to me and said, “Thank you for being so patient.”

I smiled and nodded.

I thought about mentioning the store’s policy of giving customers an item free if it does not scan at the correct price.  I looked at the clerk’s wrinkled brow as she mouthed the words, “I just don’t get it.”

No, I would not mention the policy.

It would have been cruel to do so.



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