Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Supermarket Checkouts

They say – whoever “they” are – that the most stressful times of a person’s life are moving house and getting married, two contracts that one enters into with a great deal of optimism, totally unprepared for the hardships that lie ahead.
For myself, I have moved house so many times in my life that I make the nomadic Tuareg of the sub-Sahara seem like positive stay-at-homes in comparison. As for marriage, I am fortunate to be enjoined to the most wonderful woman in the world, who just happens to be standing behind me with a baseball bat as I write this.
No, in my case, nothing in this life is designed to set the temples throbbing as much as supermarket checkouts.
Doing the actual shopping is bad enough. Trying to negotiate shelf-packers, totally unconcerned by the large-scale traffic jam their pallet of toilet rolls is causing, is bad enough. Fellow shoppers who leave their trolleys parked at right angles in the aisle while they sort through eighty packs of rashers are also inconsiderate. The hours spent fruitlessly searching the aisles when they decide to move the tins of prunes – well, that’s just an occupational hazard. The screaming kids who seem to follow you everywhere you go…
But then you reach the checkouts.
Contrary to popular folklore, finding a counter empty with a checkout person waiting to serve you is Not a Good Thing. It may seem like a miracle, but it is something of a poisoned chalice, and should be avoided by anybody with more than the proverbial ten items in ther trolley. For, while you are carefully loading up the conveyor belt, Ms. Flash Harry is sending them careering down the ramp at the other end and she will then stare at you impatiently when you set about trying to pack everything up.
For there is no pressure worse than not being able to keep up with the checkout girl.
The trick is to be the second in the queue, behind someone with two-thirds of a conveyor belt worth of purchases. Then you can start to load your goods on, while his are going through. By the time he has paid, packed and departed, you will be standing at the back of the checkout, first bag open and at the ready.
We are very careful how we arrange our goods on the belt. Frozen stuff, followed by fridge stuff, fruit and veg, tins and bottles, bread and packets and finally non-food items. If we can pack them up according to these categories, it saves time at home.
If however, you find yourself falling behind, a sense of panic starts to creep in and you make elementary mistakes like packing tins of beans on top of the swiss roll, which is bound to cause Harsh Words further down the line.
The worst type of checkout assistant you can get is the speed freak, who seems to make it her business to try and hurl as many things at you as she can, while you desperately try to open the first of your bags. But of course you can’t open the bags because she keeps throwing things down on top of you. Then when she is running short of space, instead of pausing a minute for you to catch up, she uses a highly adept forearm to shove everything down on top of you.
Of course the fruit and veg will slow her up. That’s the only reason we buy it. Sure, nobody eats healthily in our house, but its great for slowing madam down while you get the fridge stuff into the trolley. She realises this of course, and makes sure the subsequent bottles of minerals come hurtling down like skittles in a bowling alley to compensate.
A lot of people complain about the rudeness of checkout assistants these days. The ones who chew gum and hold loud conversations with Deirdre at the next checkout about whether Colm was going to ask her out or not may give off an air of inattention but while they are pausing to inspect theirnewly applied gel nails, at least you can triumphantly get the bottles packed and whisked away.
To the harrassed shopper, bag packers may seem like a great help but in reality I groan whenever I see them. These are usually kids who have never seen the inside of a supermarket in their lives and, if they have, they were probably texting Jamie while the bags were being packed.
If they are not trying to squeeze seventeen tinsinto one flimsy plasstic bag, they make sure that your coleslaw is firmly mashed into the bottom of the bag by the weight of the lemonade on top. The other week we retrieved a two dimensional lettuce from beneath the Sunday roast and no amount of plumping could revive it.
Of course the stress from supermarket bag packing is well documented. Basher Breslaw, the Clonsilla Composter who killed, dismembered and compostedeight young telephone canvassers, recounts in his autobiography "Whoops!" how his homicidal tendencies first came to light.
"She kept pushing tins of tomatoes down on top of me. I couldn't get the bag open, possibly because it was upside down. The goods just kept on piling up and I was feeling more and more inadequate. Then she asked "Do you have a Clubcard?"
Research carried out at IT Blanchardstown between 2000 and 2004 reveals that bag packing stress lies thirdin the list of causes of marital breakdown behind walking in front of the telly when there's football on and the inability to read a map.
When a couple shops together, the male usually has the job of keeping up with the checkout assistant, while the woman performs the arduous tasks of ensuring nothing falls off the belt and making caustic comments about his packing abilities. This inevitably leads to bitter conflict and occasionally vegetable-flinging.
Of course the advent of internet shopping will in time serve to lessen the number of decree absolutes awarded by the courts but, seeing that many of us still haven't figured out how to get that annoying little smartass paper-clip man off our screens, the days of stressful supermarket packing look certain to continue for some time to come.
Hartstown Community School meanwhile has announced that they will be introducing a new course as part of their Evening Classes programme this Autumn - Supermarket Bag Packing for Beginners. Taken by legendary Laurel Lodge bag packer, Neetly Fillum - who achieved a bronze medal in the event at the Montreal Olympics - the twelve week programme will concentrate on technique, breathing exercises, yoga and being able to articulate the seldom-used phrase, "Could you slow down a bit, luv?"
With places bound to fill up very quickly, the course is bound to have a major positive influence on married life in Dublin 15.


Adam, Checkout worker, Morrisons said...

Have you ever tried working on a supermarket checkout? For 7 hours a day with only a 15 minute break?

At least in your job I imagine you get to talk to co-workers, use more than a few select phrases over 500 times a day (good afternoon, any help packing your bags? that's £xxxx please, cashback?). There's no part of that job that could not be done by a monkey or a machine. You're measured by the minute and while your so-called superiors or people working in any other area of the shop can take breaks at will, you have to beg a fat, 19-year old supervisor to let you out of your invisible cage, not allowed to move unless you beg to get a closing sign because when you try to tell customers yourself they throw a huge, adult-sized tantrum.
It's the most monotonous, inhuman job that is currently legal in this country and the sooner they replace us all with self service machines the better.

It's half an hour of your week and you get to leave when you want, man up and get over it.

Peter Goulding said...

Thanks Adam.
Actually, yes, I have worked on a supermarket checkout and I agree it is no fun. I used to work 71/2 hour days with 2 x 1/2 hour breaks.
In this instance, I was writing from a customer's point of view, as I am sure you can appreciate and my "complaints" were light-hearted and not to be taken too seriously.
But your point is well made and I apologise for any offence.