Mobiles are the least of it for checkout staff

During my time on the checkout, I was shouted at, abused, humiliated and laughed at regularly

Share

Take it from me. Checkout staff are among the saints of this world.

Cranky customers, sulking shoppers, bullish buyers – they all pass down that unsavoury conveyor belt of life alongside the bogof items, fizzy drinks and ready-made meals you really should not be buying. And no matter what you chuck at them you will be met, unfailingly, with a courteous smile and a polite “that will be a jaw-breaking £45.50, please”. At least, that’s the idea.

I should know. I found myself among these saints when I went undercover for six months in a supermarket to write a book about how people were coping during the recession. That became a sidebar when I realised there was more fertile material in the appalling manners of the British public as well as the entertainment provided by daily lovers’ tiffs, family feuds and the oversharing of intimate secrets at the till. Forget EastEnders; pull up a chair around midday, midweek at your local supermarket checkout and let the soap opera unfold.

So this week I grinned wide when I saw the online storm about the ballsy checkout girl, or Cog, as I affectionately call my former comrades, who told a customer to put her phone away before she served her. She’s probably had her knuckles rapped, but I mentally high-fived her till my palms bled.

If you boil it down, that Cog was making a simple point about respect and manners. But to be frank, a customer blabbing loudly on the phone is one of the least dreadful social crimes till staff are on the receiving end of. During my six months, I was shouted at, abused, humiliated and laughed at regularly. Joe Public, you are a rude and cruel human being.

On one occasion, on a very busy weekend on the basket tills, the place where I’d started to believe Cogs went to die, my till inexplicably stopped working. The queue was at least 10 people long, and no matter how much I thumped, punched and tugged, my till did nothing. People around me started to shuffle and shift. I heard deep sighs and a couple of whispers. It was a Saturday and the supervisors were busy elsewhere. I waved my hand in the air, blushed furiously and stammered apologies to those closest to my till. The grumbles got louder and my stomach sank so deep it lay at my feet in a nauseous mess. And then I did what I knew I had to do: I uttered the deadly words.

“I’m so sorry, but this till is not working. You’ll need to go to another one.”

The eruption that followed was no less savage just because it was predictable. A man at the back of the line swore at the top of his voice and shouted: “WHY CANT YOU LOT JUST DO YOUR JOBS – YOU GET PAID ENOUGH, DON’T YOU?” (For the record they don’t.) And off he stormed with others following behind, echoing his sentiment, if not in words then certainly in body language.

A more experienced Cog came along moments later to fish me out of the depths of till hell but the damage had been done; I had been humiliated and belittled by supermarket committee. In my everyday life, I’m polite until stirred and then unleash the no-nonsense boldness that most TV reporters are made of. In this situation, in the front line of customer service, I had to shut up and put up. So again I high-five my sister Cog from this week.

Regularly, in line with British licensing laws, Cogs have to check that those purchasing alcohol are not underage. It was my least favourite part of the job. What should have been deemed a compliment – “I’m saying you look under 18. Baby-faced middle-aged man, be flattered” – was often received as a time-wasting insult. One man lifted up his shirt in a rage to reveal tattoos on his chest that were his idea of a substitute for proper ID. I would have paid myself for his two bottles of Bacardi if Id known I’d be reliving flashbacks of dark-blue scythes years later.

Handling life’s good, bad and ugly should be in the job description for any checkout staff. Alongside nerves of steel and balls of concrete. At the time of my employment at the supermarket, I had all this as a thirtysomething with a long-established professional life in an industry most people would agree is tough. I learnt very quickly that TV’s got nothing on supermarket world.

With customer service at the heart of what Cogs are supposed to do, I spent days ingratiating myself with unwilling and unfriendly customers while scanning, sliding and passing nappies and toilet bleach. If you want to master the humiliating art of small talk, go sit at a supermarket till. I’d often cast an eye across at the teenage Cogs sitting along me who might be sullen and moody at home but at work had to make sunny, light conversation. The best moments I eavesdropped on were when some would resort to sharing inappropriate details of their love lives with bemused men two or three times their age.

During my time at the tills, I witnessed all of life. I had a grown man cry because his wife was very ill, a young woman share her pregnancy with me before she told any of her nearest and dearest. I heard heartbreaking stories of loss and death and hopeful stories of love and desire. It was often a privilege but, as this week’s news proves, a pain too.

So next time you throw your groceries on that belt, spare a thought for the Cog in the supermarket wheel. If he or she hasn’t been sworn, ranted or shouted at, it’s probably been a good day at the tills.

‘The Checkout Girl’ by Tazeen Ahmad is published by Harper Collins

Twitter: @tazeenahmad

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower