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

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Nick’s accident has been an education for my lexicon

Rebecca Armstrong
 

How did swearing ever get so frowned upon?

Stefano Hatfield
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links