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