Saturday, 6 March 2010

Has anyone actually successfully used a self-service checkout?

A couple of years ago I had an epiphany in my local supermarket. I was standing in the cereal aisle pondering the merits of muesli over porridge when it dawned on me: the weekly supermarket shop is the event of my week. My social life took second place to it and I positively bounced out of the office on ‘supermarket night’, as I coined the experience.

“Why is this?” I hear you cry. How is it that this young woman could find enjoyment in zig-zagging up and down aisles filled with prunes, pasta and pantyliners? Well, long ago my mum used to take me along with her to ‘help’ with the weekly shop. I would gaze at the forbidden fruits, marshmallows, bags of ‘funsize’ chocolates and out of season strawberries, instructed that I was “only” to go and get the loo roll “and nothing else!”

So, then, as a grown-up, I found I had free reign. This did often mean that I ended up with completely mismatching ingredients – but you would be surprised at how enterprising this made me in the kitchen. Nothing made me happier than opening the fridge the next day and having ‘options’.

The supermarket was my playground. Until the self-service checkouts moved in.

Now, I am not anti-change. But I am anti-inconvenience and definitely anti-stupidity. In order to fully offload the sheer devastation and outrage that I feel, I have to go back to the start.

A few months ago four self-service checkouts were installed. What a good idea, I thought to myself – people with baskets can use those while I, with my trolley load of random produce, will merrily use the old checkouts. Very convenient and efficient.

But then the self-service checkouts multiplied. Six more were installed, replacing three old checkouts. The scales were tipped and the queues rampaged out of control down the aisles. The people manning the remaining tills couldn’t cope.

Panic and mayhem ensued as the self-service machines started accusing shoppers of placing “unexpected items in the bagging areas” while repeatedly begging confused customers to “place items in the bagging area”. I watched as an 80-year-old man had to wait for 10 minutes to be IDd for his bottle of whisky as the self-service machine couldn’t see his age.

I almost wept. Gone were the halcyon days of my ritualised supermarket experience. Now I was scanning my goods in a panic so as to not be caught out by that ever-threatening “unexpected item” which could throw the whole thing off course. The queue backed up behind me as I fumbled with my wallet, the machine repeatedly screaming at me to “take my items”, just to reinforce the sense of panic.

“I got a response. I won’t go into detail, but I had to pour myself something large and strong as a result.”

I thought it would change as we all got used to fewer checkouts and more self-service machines. It didn’t, and I snapped. I donned my ‘Angry of London’ cap and sat down to write an exhaustive email to let them know exactly how they had failed me and shoppers throughout the land. And yes, I was hoping for some vouchers.

I waited for the response – after all, they would be worried, I was a valid customer who should be listened to. I had threatened to take my custom elsewhere. If anything, I thought, it would get me 20 quid off my next shop. But, no.

I got a response. I won’t go into detail, but I had to pour myself something large and strong as a result. Here is a particular sentence which amused me (once the drink had taken effect): “They have appointed checkout captains who are there to help at the checkouts.” Oh, well, that’s alright then. We now have ‘captains’. Thank god, because I was worried we might be left to the mercy of a shop assistant.

They added (and here is where I really wanted to shove their patronising email where the sun don’t shine): “I hope that the next time you visit our store you notice a huge improvement in our service. I look forward to seeing you again soon.”

Oh, do you? Do you really? You want to see me again do you? Cut the personal touch rubbish – this isn’t Open All Hours. What you actually want is for me to have no contact with anyone at all, hence the self-service checkouts which, my friend, negate any notion of ‘our service’; you have put the ‘self’ in service. So it’s about me now, and I am going to put loads of “unexpected items” in your bagging area – unless you send me that voucher. Read more by Naomi.