Shopping During a Blackout: Yesterday and Today
by Tom Chatham, Project Chesapeake There is much talk about the possibility of an EMP or CME that takes out the power grid causing chaos nationwide. Some have stated that having cash on hand is necessary to make some last minute shopping trips to top off supplies. That is a good idea but in today’s world how effective would that be? In the early 80’s I worked in a small local grocery store after school like many kids in my generation. This store had two checkout lines of which only one was normally used except during rush hour when 5 or six people would be in line at once. One Sunday morning the power went off for several hours. There were some people that made a usual stop at this store on Sunday mornings for their Sunday paper and to do some shopping. On this particular day they continued to come in as usual but we had no power. My boss who was also the store owner did not want to lose the business so he improvised. He went to his office and brought back a small portable calculator that had a printer on top. He stood at the register and added up the items as the people came to the counter, they paid in cash as normal, he wrote down the total of the sale for his records, gave them a printed receipt from the calculator and they went on their way. This was all possible for three reasons. We had a means to add up the items, the customers were able to pay in cash and the most important thing was that all of the items had a price stamped on them. This sounds like a normal reaction to something like this but would it happen the same way today if the power went out? Most of the people working at the registers would not be able to add up the items for sale if it were not for the computer doing all the work for them. Even if they wanted to sell items, practically all corporate owned stores use scanners to scan the prices. The days when items had the price stamped on them are long gone, at least as far as the major stores are concerned. This lack of prices would make it almost impossible for stores to sell items even if they wanted to. The cashiers have no idea what the prices are these days. The other major factor is the ability to pay in cash. With the grid down and no POS terminals working, most people would have no way to pay for their goods. In the old days stores accepting credit cards had a manual machine they placed the card in along with a credit receipt and they would rack the press and imprint the receipt. The person would sign the slip and receive a copy of the credit transaction. The store would then send the credit receipt in to get their money. Unlike today, this antiquated system worked even if the power was off. Today there is no manual fallback if the POS system does not work. This makes any longterm blackout a potential time bomb for any society that relies on immediate credit processing systems. In the event of a blackout today, only small stores would likely have goods that are individually priced and a worker capable of adding the sale even if the person had some cash. These are the problems that modern society has created for itself. These are the things you need to keep in mind if you plan to shop after a blackout has occurred. You and your cash are only part of the equation. The store and its ability to sell during a blackout is on the other side of the equation. Keeping these things in mind, it might be a good idea to scope out the local stores near you and assess their ability to sell during a blackout if the situation ever arises. Keeping some cash on hand for emergencies is always a good idea, just be aware of the limitations you may face in using that cash where you want to shop.