Supermarket Checkouts

In response to a request from a loyal blog follower to write more about the manners and customs of the natives and provide my invaluable and penetrating insights on their more peculiar behaviours.  My first foray into this field of anthropological reporting will be the curious phenomenon of the seated checkout person.

Customers struggle to pack bags
Customers struggling to pack bags

To someone visiting these shores from Australia this comes as quite a shock.  I don’t know of any supermarket in Sydney where the checkout staff do not stand to serve the customer.  The reason they do this is that it is accepted practice for the checkout person to pack as they scan.  They bag up your purchases as they go doing so with due regard to the types of items that should and should not go together or on top of each other and so on.  In Britain, there is no default packing by the checkout person.  At best you may be asked if you would “like some help with packing”.  Otherwise the only assistance is to shove some plastic bags down the checkout chute after asking you if you need any bags.

You can see that it is quite hard to pack effectively when you are sitting down.  It is also much less congenial to engage properly with someone who is not on the same level as oneself.  How did they come to be seated in the first place and should I regard this as an advance for worker welfare, for health and safety, or should I regard this as a retrograde step that is part of the non-service culture that used to be prevalent in Britain.  (I might add that this seems to be changing somewhat nowadays).  Standing up is the Australian’s natural egalitarian approach under these circumstances.

Should the customers’ experience be paramount and therefore require that checkout persons stand and pack – as in Australia – or should the comfort of checkout persons take precedence and the customer left to pack their own bags.

She can't keep up
She can’t keep up

An additional consequence of this sitting down and not packing is that it is normally not possible to keep up with the arrival of purchased items as they are slung down the chute at one so that the checking out invariably finishes long before it is possible to pack all the items.  The checkout staff have clearly been trained to then wait until you have managed to pack and then pay before attending to the next customer, something which then typically pisses off that next customer as they jostle for their turn at this impossible task.  This then leads to all sorts of strange English behaviour as they try to edge ever closer to you as you are desperately trying to vacate the area.

It is all so inefficient and unsatisfying and leads to attempts to “train” oneself to perform faster and more efficiently at the checkout oneself by working as a team bagging together and one person paying while the other finishes up the bagging and ensures that all bags are ready for removal the instant the till receipt has been handed over to avoid the glares and impatience of the next in line.

As a curious little story to round off this fascinating insight into the strange ways of the natives I came upon a story about an  “‘Extremely physically attractive’ Tesco checkout girl left horrified by bald middle-aged customer’s bid to woo her”.  I note this mainly for the fact that I was Googling around trying to find some images of supermarket checkout action when I came upon this story and realised that I have seen this girl in the Tetbury Tesco store as we shop there when visiting my parents.  Life is always stranger than fiction and this story makes one wonder about our expectations about appearance and occupation.  In this instance there was clearly an incongruity that even the Judge could not help voicing.  I also like the Daily Mirror’s inability to pass over the opportunity to connect the story with royalty with the observation at the outset that it was “Prince Charles’ local Tesco” as if that makes any difference to anything and as if he might even shop there.

A couple of further links germane to this post: Self-service checkouts, and something that has not reached Australian shores as yet, self-scanning which I have tried and actually quite like, so far mainly because people don’t seem to have warmed to this at Waitrose yet which generally means that you don’t have to queue at the checkout as you have bagged and scanned as you shop and have only to pay at a card terminal.  Other stores are looking at saving themselves the capital costs of scanners and expropriating surplus value from the customers’ own phones.  Ah yes, Capitalism.  Don’t cha just luv it?

Avoid the queues
Avoid the queues

Do let me know what you thought of this little piece of ethnography and what you think about “seated checkout persons”.






10 thoughts on “Supermarket Checkouts

  1. Mark McIntyre March 24, 2015 / 7:23 am

    I met a chap the other day who refuses to use self service, not due to the level of difficulty, but rather in protest to the replacement of human staff by machines. The sit down checkout is a very interesting difference in two cultures with common roots.


    • Toby the Cat March 24, 2015 / 7:34 am

      Understand where he is coming from. For me it is the expropriation of surplus value from the customer as well II.e. free labour. The question is “how far do you want to go with reducing costs”? The more you drive down costs the less you have to pay the workers who can still just about afford to buy at the lower prices. With my “customer” hat on though, anything that reduces queuing time can’t be all bad.


  2. Everything Will Be Okay at the End March 25, 2015 / 1:06 pm

    You will not believe it but I’ve never realized that Australian shop assistants stand. Of course, I must have SEEN it, but it never registered in my brain. I have to check it when I’m back…!

    The ensuing diversion of anger from a shop assistant to a fellow shopper is interesting, and would not suprise me at all as a deliberate strategy in communist eastern block. But I’m sure here it’s only a side effect… Or is it!😄

    Buy the way, not long ago I saw a documentary about sitting and how harmful it is for your health. Some companies are apparently trialing standing work stations. Apparently all
    vital readings becone better, like blood pressure, circulation, heart rythm and so on !


    • Toby the Cat March 28, 2015 / 11:23 am

      I think it is a side-effect but you get both the checkout person and the next customer staring at you at the same time. Quite intimidating.

      Yes, standing is definitely better for in the long run.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark McIntyre March 25, 2015 / 7:31 pm

    When I purchased a harmless looking knife using the auto-checkout the other day in Sydney, the red light flashed and I had stand there like a criminal while they checked I was over 18. [you’ll know from looking at me I needed 2 forms of ID to prove it 🙂 ] Does the exist in the UK? I am curious because Australia has such a nanny state mentality – for example we are the only ones I know of who ban blunt steel butter knives on domestic airlines.


    • Toby the Cat March 26, 2015 / 3:38 pm

      Yes, there are restrictions on the self-chcekout here. Alcohol, for example, generates a request for an assistant to check Id if necessary. I suspect that a knife would do the same here. As far as the nanny state goes that is a strange paradox in Australian culture – the notion of the independent, anti-authority larrikin that exists alongside a persistent requirement for the “government” to provide, whether it be pensions or jobs or whatever.


  4. Kate Roberts March 27, 2015 / 8:53 pm

    Ah! Doug – you obviously have not acquainted yourself with Australia’s Aldi supermarket. My main reason not to shop there, despite the fact that most of my extended family has fallen in love with it, is due to the lack of packing and now I think about it, their check-out staff are all seated too. A long trail of items swirling rapidly towards one, whilst hurriedly trying to stop the melons demolishing the raspberries, is an experience I can I can do without. Their “system” does at least allow the trolley to snuggle up against the counter with the plan that one can at least grab, and run with a view to sorting and bagging later in in one’s vehicle. Professional Aldi shoppers -my sister included -appear to have a special voluminous carry-all strung across trolley laying in wait. I on the the other hand have cultivated a supermarket phobia and find the online services of Woollies (the pokie people) excellent over a cup of tea and my own selection of music (unpiped and usually the classics). One then finds a delightful young man on the doorstep the next day, offering to carry a vast array of goods already bagged into the kitchen and if one times it right (timing being an online selection process) the rest of the household is there to decant -domestic bliss!!


    • Toby the Cat March 28, 2015 / 11:30 am

      Well you’re right there but of course Aldi are German not Australian. Both Aldi and Lidl are in Britain but I have not had the pleasure of shopping in either of them as yet as there aren’t any in this area – I wonder why that is (with heavy sarcasm)? We have a Morrisons just a few minutes walk from us and it is clearly the down-market option here compared to Waitrose or Sainsburys for example but interestingly we are beginning to find that we like shopping there because Waitrose is so froo-froo in comparison and Morrisons is a bit more like shopping in Woolworths in Balmain i.e. it is smaller and has a much more limited range of each product. This actually makes shopping much easier in many ways. Also we have a lot of social housing quite near us which means that being in Morrisons offers a more balanced and grounded view of Bath than just Waitrose and all the other chi-chi shops in town. We tend to treat Morrisons as a very well-stocked corner store. But the checkout staff at Morrisons are much more likely to chat to you than those in Waitrose.


    • Everything Will Be Okay at the End March 29, 2015 / 4:29 am

      I have never shopped at Aldi (and am not going to start after being offered an Aldi chocolate by a friend that was full of little crawling insects), so the only similar experience is for me shopping at Ikea! Which is a separate story I know, but the check out conditions are similar… And I’m obviously shopping online at Woollies in a wrong suburb – have never accounted any delightful young delivery men! So unfair…😕

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Everything Will Be Okay at the End April 2, 2015 / 2:07 pm

    While on holiday in the States, we are not doing too much shopping in supermarkets but I keep my eye out on checkouts as much as I can. From what I can see cashiers stand here. As packing is concerned, it’s a bit of a joint effort – yours and cashier’s. They scan the items as quickly as possible, and then you start packing but they do it together with you. But there was also one place where they’ve packed it all.

    I also know that in Poland it’s like in the UK. So we’re probably dealing with European style versus American? With Australia following America, like with so many other things… But this time for a good result …


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