Consuming Issues: Why food shops are becoming DIY superstores

Beep, beep ... BEEP! Being a checkout assistant surely can't be one of the most interesting jobs in what my school used to call "the world of work". Waiting in a queue of time-poor, mildly peeved shoppers is not much fun either. So there are unlikely to be many tears shed at the end of the traditional checkout, but it's a tearless revolution which causes me some internal harrumphing, and probably won't do the retailers much good either.

I'm not entirely against progress. Way back in the days of the 20th century, shop assistants (including me – I stacked dog and cat food at night) had to slap price stickers on every product. It was tedious, repetitive work. Equally boringly, a checkout assistant had to tap in the prices of each item at the till.

Then at some point (1978, according the British Retail Consortium's estimates; I thought it was later) manufacturers started printing barcodes on product labels, doing away with the need for price tags. Now the major chains want to take technology a step further, by moving to self-scanning, where the shopper rather than a member of staff scans the barcodes at an automated till, and then pays the bill by card or cash.

Although I'm not aware of shoppers being asked about this, great numbers of these self-scanning points are popping up in stores, usually with the addition of a supervisor who beckons forward timid customers in the manner of a parent reassuring a toddler about to be swung over a stream.

To the store giants, the logic of installing these DIY tills must be overwhelming. They allow skilled shoppers to pop in for a few items quickly rather than get stuck in a queue. Then there is the saving in staff costs which, in theory, will be returned to customers in the form of lower prices.

But there is a problem, or, rather, a few gripes. Firstly, many people don't actually like scanning their own shopping, and a survey last year suggested that 48 per cent of people found self-service tills awkward. The shopping website Fatcheese (though this finding is conveniently helpful to it) claimed that the biggest gripes were that scanners "didn't scan items" (46 per cent) and shoppers "could not use own bags" (39 per cent), followed by my two personal favourites: "customer does all the work" (13 per cent) and "always has to get help" (12 per cent).

Bjorn Weber, an analyst at Planet Retail, said last year: "It's like the machine is very publicly saying 'you are too stupid to do this – go home now'. It is far from ideal."

Supermarkets insist they will not abandon all manned tills but like Ryanair's disappearing airport check-in desks, perhaps the queues for those that remain will lengthen prohibitively. Though the problems of operating automated tills are amusing and frustrating by turns, their biggest drawback as far as I can see is that they threaten to drain the shopping experience of colour.

Buying food is becoming more impersonal and it may be one reason why we are filling our bellies with junk. Food is fresh and colourful, textured and shaped. It is tasty and fragrant and alluring. Instead of opening up this sensual world, grocers seem only to want to shift high-margin boxes (sales of ready meals are up) in DIY-style hangars, where straight lines and cubes dominate. And now you can do all your shopping without saying hello to a human being.

*David Oates, of Cardiff, writes to point out an error in my column about shop booze on 3 July. When I said: "The price of a [pub] pint, £2.50, mitigates against over-consumption", the word I was grasping for, but didn't quite reach, was "militates". Luckily, I still know the difference between yes and no (on most days).

Setting out their stalls for a grand competition

Heroes and villains

Hero: Old Spitalfields Market

Markets are a refreshing change to grocery multiples, so hats off to Old Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool Street station in east London, which is running a competition to celebrate the "banter" (patter) and "flash" (display of merchandise) from stallholders. Shoppers can nominate traders, who stand to win £1,000.

Villain: Andrew Lansley

The Food Standards Agency compromises too often, as it did about colourings that cause hyperactivity, but it is a reasonable regulator. The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants to give its health campaigning role to his government department. The FSA prevents rather than cures. The Department of Sickness doesn't, or hasn't so far.

m.hickman@independent.co.uk

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