Considering the cash register: How one group got the job done

One of the groups that formed part of my fieldwork had a shop front. A digital cash register had been introduced by head office before I started my fieldwork. In theory, the digital cash register allowed head office to monitor transactions in the op shop. The system sent off records of each day’s transactions to head office but what it actually allowed head office to monitor was what was entered into the cash

There was a range of strategies devised so people in the group could continue to staff the shop front despite the new cash register. They did not know how to open the cash register drawer any way other than putting through a transaction. It was common for a 50 cent transaction to be put through the cash register to open the drawer in situations such as if the wrong change had been given, if something needed to be checked or if cash was needed to collect change from the bank. The trick was to remember to deduct the 50 cents off a later transaction where the customer did not want a receipt to help ensure an accurate reconciliation at the end of the day. 

Although many in the group said they had surprised themselves by learning to operate the new cash register, one person with low literacy did not. Instead of having to resign her role, when she worked on the front counter, the cash register drawer was left ajar and she neatly wrote down the price of each item sold. When there was free time later in the day, somebody else would enter these prices into the cash register in made up transactions mimicking normal patterns. Such arrangements were treated by the team of volunteers as violating head office’s instructions but this was not treated as a problem within the group.

I did not think these strategies were a particular problem (but, after spending many months with the group, I did check the cash register instructions one week and then showed some of the others how to put through a ‘no sale’ to open to cash register drawer).

Systems were found to work around the cash register but the cash register seemed to also shape the group’s experience. The lack of flexibility in the operation of the cash register seemed to contribute not so much to frustrations at the cash register or the demands from customers being ruled too challenging, but rather those customers who changed their mind when it came to part of the transaction were described and treated as frustrating people to be avoided. In this way, the digital cash register had managed to prioritise transactions. However, this was not through the process of the record of transactions being received by head office each day but rather because of the frustration that would be experienced by group members if the demands of customers did not fit with the way the cash register organised the work flow. 

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