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Special Report Supermarkets: checkout

Joanna Blythman

1st September, 2004

I had always wondered what it was like to work at a supermarket checkout. So when I stumbled upon an article about a Tesco scheme called Twist – short for Tesco Week In Store Together – I took my chance.

This was a scheme for head-office top brass to get a taste of what it was like to work on the supermarket shop floor. It started me thinking that I should carry out my own version of Twist. I knew, because of my Asda Big Welcome experience (see page 30), that supermarkets were always on the lookout for checkout operators. Even so, I was surprised at the speed with which I was hired by Tesco. I dropped off my application form on a Sunday afternoon, and by the following Saturday I was on checkouts being trained. By the following Monday, I had been let loose on an unsuspecting public, albeit with a sign that read ‘Newly trained staff… Your patience is appreciated’. Thank heavens for that protection. I was thankful, after my Asda Big Welcome, that my Tesco training was short and sweet and infinitely less corny. The principles were the same, though: be nice to customers and impress the mystery shopper.

To nudge you in the right direction there was the acronym Echo – Every Customer Help Offered. The mystery shopper had a tick list, and offering help with packing was on it. But the mystery shopper was a bit dense. You could automatically pack a customer’s shopping without asking, but that didn’t count as offering help with packing. Even a ‘would you like a hand with your packing?’ was borderline. You had to utter the prompt word ‘help’ clear as a bell if you were to be sure of getting that tick. ‘Hello’ and ‘goodbye’ were also expected, and ‘do you have a Clubcard?’ was essential script. My first proper shift lasted for four and a half hours, during which I was entitled to one 15-minute break. When I took my break, by the time I had walked through the store, gone to the toilet, poured a cup of free canteen tea and drunk it, it was time to be back on the job. At first, the concentration required in mastering the checkout made the time whizz by. The shift didn’t seem too bad. The next day’s shift was six and a quarter hours with two 15-minute breaks. Time began to drag. By now I could chirrup ‘have you got a Clubcard?’ in my sleep. As the week went on I began to get to know more about the other staff. They were kind, welcoming and supportive – and not because anyone had sent them on a charm course. It was genuine.

Snatched five-minute chats with fellow workers at break times were treats that lit up the day, as was the banter with the more amiable customers. But this wasn’t enough to compensate for the tedious monotony of the checkout or the stressful and tiring nature of the work environment. As the week drew on, I became more and more aware of a stabbing ache between the shoulder blades. Helping customers pack is all very well, but doing that and scanning goods at the same time involves twisting and stretching your torso in an unnatural way, often putting downward weight on wrists. I found myself struggling with 12-packs of beer and bumper boxes of pet food. It was easier to pack standing up than sitting down, but doing that only meant swapping a sore back for tired legs. Twist began to take on a whole new meaning. I wasn’t in the least surprised to discover that the Health and Safety Executive had found that in a busy four-hour shift a checkout operator might lift the equivalent of one ton in weight, nor that back complaints are common in checkout operators, as are reports of aches and pains in the upper limbs.

I began to appreciate why more often than not checkout staff look jaded. There was no daylight or fresh air. I sat under strip lights. The air-conditioning and heating fans clicked on and off all the time, creating a low-level hum of noise, punctuated by a discordant symphony of repeat beeping as the line of operators scanned goods through the checkouts. I constantly felt dehydrated. Frequent changes in temperature as the fans regulated the store temperature left me feeling shivery and uncomfortable. After several hours at a time any urge to be cheery or pleasant was overtaken by an all-pervasive, mind-numbing blankness. I began to feel spaced out, as though dulled by drugs. Any energy I might feel at the start of a shift soon ebbed away. The necessity to endlessly parrot ‘do you have a Clubcard?’ sapped any willingness left to engage, even superficially, with customers. Even if you wanted to try to be pleasant, after only so long it was impossible to keep it up.

In quieter moments, I found myself thinking about Tesco’s chief executive Sir Terry Leahy. He could have a cup of coffee or a glass of water at his desk any time he liked. He could amble over and take a look out of the window when he felt like it, too. He didn’t have to put his hand up to ask to go to the lavatory. It was a sure bet that he wasn’t subjected to random locker or airport-style clothing searches. What’s more, he was paid an awful lot of money to be professionally charming to people while I was being paid just £4.94 an hour to do so. It would rise to £5.22 after six months and £5.49 after a year, but that wasn’t much more than the £5.38 the Low Pay Unit was recommending as a minimum wage. Neither tea breaks nor lunch breaks were paid. Yes, I knew that there were all sorts of benefits open to staff who stick it out. A Save As You Earn share scheme, a 10 per cent staff discount, a decent pension, career breaks, parental leave, and more. But by Saturday, at the end of a killer 10-hour shift (eight and a half hours with an hour off for lunch and two 15-minute tea breaks), I was virtually brain dead and physically exhausted, fit only for eating a meal and collapsing in a chair in front of the TV. The thought of spending every Saturday like this was downright depressing. I could fully appreciate why many people wouldn’t stick around to realise those benefits, and why Tesco’s annual staff turnover rate was running at 29 per cent.

My admiration for the people who do this job day in, day out, while coping with everything else in life, is enormous. Industry surveys show that the vast majority of them are women working part-time with a host of other commitments. Some of them have other part-time jobs too, such as childminding. They can’t just slip off home after work and put their feet up. At the checkout they face an omnipresent threat of violence. A checkout operator in my store had recently left because she had been assaulted – totally out of the blue – by a couple of men out of their minds on drugs or drink or both.

So, if you insist on shopping at supermarkets, always, but always, be nice to checkout operators. And if they don’t beam back at you, please don’t judge them harshly.

Extracted from Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman published by Fourth Estate, 2004.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004

 

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