February 21st, 2013


'Unexpected item in the bagging area'

There's something that's been getting my goat for a long time now. It's something that seems to have stealthily crept into daily life around here, and I'm sure many other places as well, that I really disapprove of. And, I must say, this is purely a personal disapproval, but I feel I'm not completely alone. I'm sure there are those of you who find this phenomenon perfectly acceptable, useful even, and wouldn't do without it, but I find it sinister, unnecessary, obstructive and annoying.

What the hell is he talking about?

If you'll bear with me, I'll tell you.

We all have to grind out a daily life. We all have things to do that may not be as exciting or interesting as we'd like them to be. In English they tend to be colloquially termed 'chores', and that's for a reason. Cleaning, tidying, cooking sometimes, washing, and, for me at least, especially shopping.

My disquiet is with the self-service tills that seem to be popping up more and more wherever you look.

When I do my shopping I like to go to a proper checkout. I like those few moments of interaction and communication with the person manning (or womanning, or girling, or boying) the till. I like the short, probably meaningless conversation, the questions, the platitudes, the smile, the hello, the goodbye. I like making a connection with someone, even if it's for only a moment or two. I don't expect to discuss my shopping choices in detail, to analyse what I've bought and why, but, let's face it, it's nice to chat.

I've been told that serving yourself saves you time. Well, my philosophy, my attitude, is to get up two minutes earlier, or better still, just to not be bothered. Has life really become so pressed, stressed and rushed that people can't spend a couple of moments waiting to be served? Has each slice of time become so precious that we feel the need to be duped into serving ourselves in shops? And no one is really fooled I'm sure, time saving is not the real reason those tills are there anyway.

I flatly refuse to use self-service tills in supermarkets and other shops that have installed them. There are many reasons. I see them as a purely commercial expedient, a way of cutting back on staff and costs without appearing to discourage customers, while continuing to fill the already overburdened pockets of shareholders and conglomerates. One member of staff can watch over six or eight of these tills and respond to a flashing light like a trained pigeon when their help is needed. And in the meantime the customer is doing the work of the other five or seven members of staff who would have been needed to man (or woman, or girl, or boy) the tills if they were still the conventional sort. I won't be party to those people being put out of jobs for the sake of an apparent saving of a personal minute or two.

In fairness, these places still usually give you the choice of being served in the traditional way if you want, even though you are actively encouraged to go it alone, but that isn't really my complete gripe either. The thing that really, really annoys me is the perpetual running commentary of someone else's shopping you get if you're queued up near any of these tills.

'Unexpected item in the bagging area' indeed!

It must be hell for the men, women, girls or boys who sit there patiently doing a proper job, serving customers, for a whole working day with that monotonous racket going on constantly, 'Have you swiped your Nectar card?', 'Please take your change', 'How would you like to pay?', and again and again, 'Unexpected item in the bagging area'. If it annoys me just passing through, it must make them gibber.

The other thing that makes me wonder about all this is, what next? Where will it all end? Will they expect me to get there a few minutes early so that I can do a spot of shelf-stacking for them before I start my shopping? If I get there really early, will they want me to open up for them? Will they want me to round up a few wayward trolleys and shepherd them back to the areas set aside for them in the car park? I already serve myself petrol, but will I soon be asked to give the tanks a scrub every now and then?

In short, the prices never seem to drop, but the level of service is constantly plummetting through the floor. I don't see that as either progress, or desirable.

If it carries on, one day they might just find an unexpected item in their bagging area. And that won't be pleasant for anyone.