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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

There is far too much sexism in the UK - but a point scoring system against other countries won't help to tackle it

Victoria Richards
 

Upmarket and downmarket – why the modern consumer loves a bit of both

Sean O'Grady
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers