Service with a sneer
As sure as I am that scratch and sniff underwear is a fundamentally flawed fashion concept, so too am I convinced that automatic self-serve tills at supermarkets are good for nothing and nobody - save those with a taste for irritation. They are quite simply devices of the Devil or whichever demon of the Pit oversees getting on people's nerves and fraying tempers.
I would applaud their use were they simply a device employed by the producers of some hidden-camera prank show to illicit angry reactions from red-faced, tight-lipped grocery shoppers. I would no doubt laugh along as the Geordie voice-over guy who does Big Brother - you know, the one who sounds like he's actually undergoing a lobotomy as he is commentating - or the prissy little twerp from Come Dine With Me sets the scene for each checkout-related jape. "What Derek doesn't know is we've actually removed Danish Pastries from the till's inventory of known products. So no matter how hard he looks he won't actually be able to pay for it. But just how long will he stand there looking more and more like a caveman being asked to rewire an air-conditioning unit? Feeling a bit foolish Derek? Oops there they go on to the floor, he doesn't look very happy does he? Stupid bloody prole." That's a show I would watch but alas these machines are not facilitators of comic high jinx, no indeed, they are here ostensibly to make our lives easier, our shopping faster, for the good of the nation etc., etc.
Easier my not inconsiderable backside. They have been installed in most of the major food multiples because ultimately the devices are going to save the stores money. I actually have no issue with this, but they should tell me they are putting the money into other things, new products, keeping food prices down, protecting jobs, whatever - just don't p*ss in my ear and tell me it's raining. Really I wish that just a smidgen more field-testing had been conducted on things before they were inflicted on the nation. Actually I couldn't care less about the rest of the country, I just heartily regret that they came to my happy hamlet - particularly given the predominance of older folk frequenting the local store.
Now I am not going to indulge in sweeping statements about older folk and technology; I don't happen to subscribe to the view that teaching coffin-dodgers to use anything containing microchips is as worthwhile an exercise as teaching ducks the virtues of an umbrella. No indeed, there's a whole generation of silver surfers who aren't afraid of computerised gizmos (and who know it is inappropriate to refer to the radio as a 'wireless') and more power to them, I say. The trouble is none of these tech-friendly grannies happen to shop at my local supermarket. Instead I regularly find myself stuck behind hesitant old ducks who still address the machinery with a polite "Hello dear" as if they expect it to respond with vaguely interested banter about their grandchildren.
Thereafter we get a myopic ballet performed at glacial speeds as they fumble to locate the barcodes on cat food or ready-meals, getting more and more flustered as the machine refuses to process the next lot of goods until they have placed their shopping on a precise spot in the bagging area. And every single time they wish to purchase anything without a barcode, any time they want to use a loyalty card or voucher, any occasion they wish to buy anything alcoholic or requiring the removal of security tags the by-now quite agitated customers have to call upon the help of the former checkout staff (whose new duties centre on hanging around looking bored or embarrassed) to do it for them anyway. The only difference being that instead of enjoying a familiar bit of social interaction with shop staff the customer now feels stupid and belittled. Granted some of them may be stupid but that is an entirely different argument. The point is that it saves exactly no time whatsoever, still involves a staff member and leaves customers feeling alienated.
But this really isn't just an affliction that attacks the elderly. The whole bagging area sketch really is a consummate wind-up for anyone buying more than one bag of shopping. It appears that the scales used by the self-serve tills to authenticate customers' purchases have a complete bloody mind of their own. If you wish to make room for a new bag to fill you get warned to put the first one back, so you're faced with having to form a precarious tower of shopping instead. If you are foolish enough to have brought your own bags you are rewarded at random junctures with the warning that there is an 'unexpected item in the bagging area'. No there isn't! Liberace's rhinestone-encrusted piano hasn't just materialised on the checkout, it's still just my c*cking shopping.
Leaving aside the number of people I have seen walking out having abandoned their baskets, perhaps the most damning thing, however, is the effect the tills are having on customer/staff relations. There are few things more aggravating to a queue of impatient customers than to see staff apparently hanging around doing nothing when they could be working on a till. Rather than a communal experience the customers and staff are automatically placed in opposition to each other. In summary, the tills are slower, more aggravating, they erode brand loyalty and make the notion of customer service as a priority laughable. Good call.
If you'd like to comment on any of Jack's article or share rant about something that irritates you, email firstname.lastname@example.org. It might tempt him out of the cupboard, and maybe he'll write about what annoys you!