Saturday, January 10, 2009

shoplifter-detection gates

Some time ago, stores noticed that, on occasion, people would pick things up and neglect to pay for them, for whatever reason. Sensing this could hurt their bottom line, managers, in their infinite wisdom, tried a few different approaches to solve the problem.

First, they hired people to profile people by age, race, and accessories and follow them around, pretending to be innocent shoppers, who just happen to be innocently interested in every single item in which you are interested. Young black men, I'm sure, are familiar with this practice, and if you happen to not be young nor black nor a man, you could try wearing a backpack into a store. Gets you followed every time.

As this practice didn't fare so well with the average customer who goes to a store to shop and not to re-enact spy thrillers, managers determined to beat the problem with technology, hence the birth of the shoplifter-detection gates, now omnipresent across our great nation. These gates are meant to deter shoplifting by beeping when an unpurchased good is moved through them. You'll see a primitive form of such gates in Indiana Jones and the Second-to-Last Crusade, as the Holy Grail is protected from removal by the destruction of the entire facility, in a very slow fashion, such that anybody carrying it with just a slow shuffle should have made it outside without any sort of problem, and I still don't understand why Elsa was unable to perform such an obviously easy task when my own grandmother could have made better time across burning hot coals with the aid of her walker.

Ancient examples aside, apparently (and this was supremely unfortunate), the people constructing the gates ran up against a serious problem: they don't actually work. For two reasons.

On one hand, should the gate beep, at most it provokes several sheepish and embarrassed glances by the unfortunate passerby. If several people are walking through at once, they immediately eye each other like sole possessors of the ring of power, convinced their neighbors are common thieves. In any event, no matter how many people are walking through, there is rarely a clear action to take. Typically, it is a large store, there are dozens of employees, and each one, sensing the awkwardness of the situation, has removed himself or herself outside of earshot.

Instead, you're faced with two choices. Either pause, look around, and try to find someone to whom you may proclaim your innocence, or you assume nobody is nearby, and traipse through with an inner confidence, thereby convincing any fellow shoppers you have just enacted a fraud.

Now, this by itself would be bad enough. However, there's one extra element which fate threw in, just to torment mankind (mank and ind, as Jack Handy would say).

The gates themselves don't actually work.

Instead of beeping when contraband is passed through its pearly beacons of honesty, it beeps randomly, without warning. It could beep when you walk in. It could beep when you walk out. It could beep when you walk out wearing a backpack. It could beep when you walk out wearing nothing but an empty backpack. It's either a random algorithm, or a possessed demon.

This has the unfortunate effect of making me paranoid of walking past the demon gates. No matter where I am, or what I'm carrying, or what I'm wearing, I approach the gates as a man condemned, furrowing my brow, and praying that the gate gods will look upon me kindly today.

No comments: