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