Kiss and till: What the checkout girl saw

Can you scan 800 barcodes an hour? Say ‘thank you’ 500 times each day? Then you could have what it takes to be a supermarket cashier. But, says Anna Sam, you might regret it
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The Independent Culture

My name is Anna. I'm 28-years-old with a degree in literature and a life story that is both completely ordinary and a little bit unusual.

I've worked for eight years in a supermarket. I started out there to fund my studies and have some financial independence. But when I couldn't find any work using my degree, I stayed on and became that stalwart of modern life, a checkout girl.

The till. Not a great conversationalist, unless you count the beeps it makes when you scan the produce. As a result of listening to that robotic noise I was becoming a little like a robot myself. The fleeting interaction with the customers was not enough to make me feel human. Happily though, contact with my colleagues did just that.

One day I decided to write about my working life and record the little incidents that fill the day of a checkout girl. Suddenly I was looking differently at the customers filing past. I was seeing the world of retail with new eyes and discovered it was a lot more varied than I had thought.

I wanted to share my experiences. I have put together a few of my stories, the ones that affected me most. So take your trolley and come into the supermarket.

***

The Job Interview

It doesn't matter if you have never worked before, you don't know how to count, you are agoraphobic or afraid of the dark, as long as you are available immediately, accept the wonderful salary offered, have a bank account and can answer this question:

"Why do you want to work with us?"

Yes, even to be a checkout girl, you have to come up with a good reason. Try one of the following:

"Because I've always dreamt of working in a supermarket!"

If you want them to believe you, say it with a lot of conviction and make your eyes sparkle with enthusiasm at the same time.

"Because my mother was a checkout girl!"

Same conviction and enthusiasm required.

"Because, like you, I want to 'make life taste better'," or "Because, as you say, 'Every little helps.''' Stretching it a little, I know, but such devotion is always well received.

"I'm a student. I need a part-time job to support myself." The classic answer – managers like students. They grumble less than old people and don't mind working at weekends.

"I need a job to survive." Avoid this – even if it's true, the manager will think you're "not very motivated", "lacking team spirit", "unsuited to the store's commercial ambitions" and your application risks being relegated to the bottom of the pile.

***

Welcome to your dream job

Congratulations! You've been hired. So let's get cracking. It's time for training. Don't worry though – an old hand will take you under her wing for at least, I don't know, a quarter of an hour. A morning if you're lucky.

The first time you approach the tills in your wonderful Chanel or Dior uniform, or your hideous overall (depending on the store and the kind of customers they want to attract) with your float under your arm (the equivalent of several days' salary no less) you are bound to feel a bit intimidated. That feeling will pass. Right, you've found your till, organised your float and settled in. The old hand is beside you and you're all ears. You're ready to work.

"The main things to remember are: scan the items (with a quick glance to check that the price looks right), add up the total, tell the customer, ask for a loyalty card, take payment, give the customer their change, ask for ID if necessary and give them the receipt. All with a nice sincere smile. Of course. And then, 'Thank-you-have-anice-day' and on to the next customer.

"Shall I go through it again? It'll soon become automatic and you won't pay much attention to what you're doing. Within a month it will be as if you and your till were one."

Time has flown by and the old hand is giving you less and less advice. You're becoming expert at scanning items and giving change. You'll be able to scan your first items independently. What a treat that will be.

Actually, apart from the bee-eep of the scanner, it's not very exciting. Fortunately there's lots of interaction with customers. Your first day is almost over. The last customers are leaving and the store is closing.

So what are your first impressions? Actually, it's quite a fun job. You scan lots of items (and discover things you didn't know how to use or even existed), you chat with people, you have pleasant colleagues, you listen to music all day and it's nice and warm. A dream job. Well, almost.

You have to come back and do it all again tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. As time goes by, your job won't be so appealing.

***

The top three questions asked at the till

This store's exclusive gift to you is a set of the top three customer questions:

"Where are the loos?"

"Don't you have any bags?"

"Are you open?"

Out of context they're not so bad. But wait until you're behind your till. By the end of the day these questions will make you want to commit an act of violence – or scream.

The most annoying is, without a doubt, "Are you open?" So you aim to be the best, most polite, and friendliest checkout girl? OK, that's your right and it's very admirable (although don't forget how little you're paid). But promise me that you will never let anyone address you as if you were your till. You are a human being, not a machine that beeps. It's not only customers who have rights. Here are a few suggestions:

Customer: "Are you open?"

Polite checkout girl: "I'm not but my till is."

Sarcastic checkout girl: "Beeeeeep!" Or if the Customer is good-looking: "Try me and see."

Checkout girl with her best smile: "Are you?"

***

Every little counts

Here are a few things to ponder if you are to be an unbeatable checkout girl:

*About 750,000 people are employed by supermarkets in the UK.

*Between 15 to 20 items must be scanned every minute. This can increase to 45 at some discount chains.

*700 to 800 items scanned per hour.

*21,000 to 24,000 items per week.

*800 kg of goods lifted per hour (more than on good days).

*96 to 120 tonnes lifted per week (which is equivalent to four HGVs).

Every day you will say on average:

*250 hellos.

*250 goodbyes.

*500 thank yous.

*200 "Do you have a loyalty card?"

*70 "Please enter your PIN".

*70 "Please take your card".

*30 "The loos are over there" and many other similarly poetic lines. You're not a robot, are you? Of course not! A robot doesn't smile.

*Your average monthly pay: £800 net.

*Hours worked a week: 30.

But let's get one thing straight. Don't think you'll be able to top up your hours with part-time work. Your manager will ensure your rota will change every week. Of course you could always work as a cleaner from 5am until 8am or take in ironing. You didn't want time for your family, did you?

I'm at the checkout!

Mobile phones can make a man or woman invisible – and it's not only the most expensive models that can do it. The fact that checkout girls are pretty invisible anyway helps with this trick.

Customer: (on the phone, talking loudly as if he were on his own) "I'm at the till! Couldn't you have told me earlier that you wanted bananas?"

Checkout girl: (loudly, to remind him he is at the till and not at home) "Hello!"

Customer: (he still thinks he's at home) "Go out tonight? Are you feeling better then?"

Checkout girl: "£13.50 please."

Customer: (not moving at all) "I'm sure it's a stomach bug. I hope you haven't given it to me. I don't want to spend all night on the loo."

Checkout girl: (speaking loudly) "That's £13.50 please!"

Customer: (a glance at the checkout girl but collecting his shopping) "You're the one who never listens to me. You should wash your hands every time you go out."

Checkout girl: (clenching fists) "Do you have a loyalty card?"

Customer: (inserting bank card without glancing up) "I'm not deaf. You're so grumpy when you're ill." (Grabs the receipt from the checkout girl's hand as if she were a ticket machine.)

Customer: (going off with shopping, still on the phone) "It's a good thing everyone's not like you."

Checkout girl: (under her breath) "And it's a good thing everyone's not like you."

***

Kissing couples

So you thought supermarkets weren't the sexiest places? They are much more erotic than you had imagined. You'd be surprised how many kisses are stolen in the aisles, by the number of languorous glances exchanged between the butcher's counter and the fishmonger's, by the number of hands on bottoms in frozen food, and the passionate conversations at the cheese counter.

Once it was my good fortune to witness real passion. It was the end of the day. There was no one at my till. My glance fell on a couple and their four children limgering in the comics aisle. I was immediately struck by the great tenderness between mum and dad and I said to myself that to be so in love after four children was the stuff of dreams.

Lots of romantic images passed through my mind until a sound like the unblocking of a sink made me look up. My dream couple were walking towards me with their trolley and four children ... and snogging. Hence the noise. I told myself that love is deaf as well as blind.

All the time they were at my till they were fondling each other, and completely without inhibition – they weren't worried about anyone catching sight of mum's pink lacy G-string or dad's hairy bum. Their children, unmoved, left them to it and packed the shopping. I suppose it's better than parents who argue. But I have to admit I blushed.

***

Embarrassing items

What embarrasses or intimidates customers? Surely nothing – isn't that the nature of customers? Let me put you straight because there a few items really bother some customers.

Loo roll. Everyone uses it (consumption in Britain is more than twice the European average). And yet for some customers it's as if their loo roll smells bad already. You barely have time to scan it (don't be sadistic and pretend you can't find the barcode) before they snatch it and bury it right at the bottom of their trolley or bag.

Sanitary towels. Apparently, for some, periods are still a shameful illness. Luckily, sanitary-towel packaging and tampon boxes are more discreet than loo roll and can quickly be stowed. However, not before you've seen these customers blush furiously, mumble an embarrassed "hello", their eyes on their shoes. It's as if you had suddenly become a very imposing person. Amazing, a checkout girl can actually intimidate her customers!

Condoms (my favourite embarrassing item). There are customers who appear to think: "If I hide this condom, no one will see it." They try to "drown" the box among other items (some even choose other products whose colour and packaging are similar to the condom packet's), or throw on the conveyor belt at the last minute like a casual afterthought. But they should beware of throwing it too hard because it might bounce on to the conveyor belt of the next till where their neighbour is paying for her shopping. If that happens their only recourse is to move to South America.

Then there are the show-offs. Real comedians. Pumped full of testosterone, they put two or even three or four boxes of XXL condoms on the conveyor belt. They don't buy anything else, obviously, unless it's lubricating jelly ... and they fully expect all the customers around them (preferably the whole shop) to look at them with admiration (if they're ladies) and jealousy (if they're men). They never use a bag.

***

Thou shalt not get caught

Supermarkets are veritable treasure troves but unfortunately everything has to be paid for. Sometimes, though, the temptation to steal is just too strong. It's only human. But if you don't want to get caught, dear customer, avoid the following ploys, which are all-too-well known by checkout girls, or make sure you perfect them.

The smooth talker. This ploy involves being very voluble. The customer relates their life story and tells lots of jokes with extravagant gestures. This customer is a real clown – actually, a real magician. They hope to distract the checkout girl so she won't notice that beneath their coat their stomach is strangely round. Do you have the gift of the gab? Give it a go but be sure you have the necessary talent, otherwise your next performance will be in front of a couple of police officers.

The arguing couple. While the checkout girl scans their items a sudden violent argument breaks out between husband and wife about why they have bought some products twice or the colour of the loo roll. The tension increases and they come to blows. The checkout girl doesn't know what to do and looks at the floor. They use the opportunity to whisk through a rucksack full of shopping. Forget it. Most checkout girls love domestics and won't miss a moment – unless you go so far as to tear each other's clothes off (but that technique might attract too much attention).

The secreter. This customer puts a blank CD in a box of Camembert, batteries inside packs of Coke cans, etc. All products which could be used to cover others are well known by checkout girls. You'll either need more imagination or you'll need a shopping bag with a false bottom. You can also forget the "Oh, I didn't see it!" excuse.

The outraged customer. He is going out with his shopping when the security alarm sounds. Immediately he cries: "It's a scandal! You can't treat me like a thief when it's daylight robbery in this supermaket! The alarm must be broken, this happened last time too! I'm never coming back here." The customer is hoping to intimidate the checkout girl or security guard so they won't ask to see his purchases and just let him through, worn down by his shouting. Even if you can be really frightening, forget this tactic. It has been used to death.

The athlete. He passes through the tills at the speed of light, a large item under his arm and takes everyone by surprise. You need to be extremely fit with a good knowledge of rugby to avoid being flattened by the security guards.

The barcode switcher. He will swap the barcode of the product he wants to buy for that of a cheaper product. Two drawbacks: today the labels with the bar codes are very difficult, almost impossible, to remove and break easily. And secondly, you are unlikely to get away with it. The checkout girl will notice if a pan costs the same as a packet of salt. Don't take her for an idiot.

Out of sight, out of mind. He queues like everyone else. The checkout girl thinks he's a normal customer. But suddenly he leaves the queue and makes a dash for the exit, his bag full of "shopping" under his arm. By the time the checkout girl can react and warn security he is home free. He counts on the passivity of the shopping crowd and the checkout girl's weariness. Nice try, but it won't work. This tactic requires the security guards to be very tired or absent. So choose your time carefully and watch out for the security guards' break times.

I would also like to warn you about a final point: beware of other customers. Some are born to tell tales and won't hesitate to betray you. So be careful when you steal in the aisles.

***

Out of the mouths of babes

A child's view of the world is full of insight, candour, poetry and tenderness. Your heart will leap when you hear this kind of thing.

Little Jamie (aged seven) asks you, after watching your till closely: "Where's your bed?

Little Nicholas (aged nine): "Can you give me money too?" Because he has seen you give his mother her change.

Little Julia (aged six): "Are you in prison?" Because your till looks like a rabbit hutch than a supermarket till.

All this is quite sweet and will make you smile. But when parents use your perceived humble station to scare their children you have to keep smiling – but you can still put them right.

When you hear a mother tell her child, pointing her finger at you, "You see, darling, if you don't work hard at school you'll become a checkout girl like the lady," there's nothing to stop you explaining that it's not a profession for stupid people, that you'd rather do this than be unemployed and that you actually have a good degree.

If you don't, you may find that afterwards children don't respect you or see you as a failure. And I have news for all those self-righteous people: it's been a long time since a degree guaranteed a dream job. Today's graduates sometimes have no choice but to do less skilled work. Dear parents, thank you for using us as the bogeyman to raise your children. But you need to update your ideas.

***

Do you have ten items or less?

You have been put on the 10 items or less till. A quiet day then. If I were you, I wouldn't get too excited. 10 = 10? Not on your till. Good luck!

10 = 20

Checkout girl: "Hello, do you have 10 items or less?"

Customer: "Of course!" (Number of items on the conveyor belt = 20.)

Checkout girl: "Could you please go to another till?"

Customer: "You're just lazy!"

10 = 11

Checkout girl: "Hello, 10 items or less?"

Customer: "Um, one, two, three, 11, is that OK?"

Checkout girl: "11 isn't 10."

Customer: "You're not going to kick up a fuss about one little extra?"

Checkout girl: "10 means 10. But if you want, you can pay separately or remove one item."

Customer: "Bloody hell!"

10 = nobody

Checkout girl: "Do you have 10 items or less?"

Customer: "There's no one else here, you could take my trolley."

Checkout girl: "Sorry, this till is reserved for customers with less than 10 items."

Customer: "Bloody hell!"

10 = 5 x 10

Checkout girl: "Hello, 10 items or less?"

Customer:"I've got about 50 items but I'll pay in five different transactions".

Checkout girl: "Very clever. I'd never have thought of that."

***

Priority? Did you say priority?

You are at a priority till. You must give priority to people in wheelchairs, disabled people, expectant mums and people with young children. It's essential to keep reminding yourself because you will be faced with other "priority" customers whose needs are urgent:

*The customer who is desperate for the loo.

*The customer who has been up since 5 o'clock that morning.

*The customer who is three weeks' pregnant.

*The couple whose favourite TV programme starts in five minutes.

*The mother with three children over eight.

*The customer who has flu.

*The customer who has a dinner party for eight people to organise.

*The customer who hates queuing (yes, they do try to claim priority).

***

Checking out

Saturday, 3 January: My last day. No, it's not a dream. It's the last time I will look at the board to find my hours and break times and which tills I'll be working on: Till 12 until 3pm, Till 13 until 9pm – Oh, joy, next to the freezers all day. And I forgot to bring my scarf.

11 am: Clocking-in time. No chair ... as usual. But this time I get one in less than five minutes. Immediately I hear: "Are you open?"

8.45 pm: The store is about to close. Already? The day has gone really quickly. It's all the emotion, I expect.

8.55pm: My last customer.

"Don't you have any bags?"

It's always nice to end on a classic.

Adapted from "Checkout: A Life on the Tills" by Anna Sam, published by Gallic (£6.99) on 31 July. To pre-order a copy with free P&P call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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