We've been sold a lie


It’s time we face facts. We’ve been sold a lie, and I’m calling it.

This week a combination of a lack of weekly shopping and a house full of hungry teenagers saw me forced to stop and shop at my local supermarket store on the way home from work. Like the good shopper I am I brought a set of my own bags, and like the forgetful parent I am I promptly entered the store at roughly the same time my list of desired items exited my memory.

But not a problem, I took my usual approach - walk down every aisle staring intently at products as I march forward, like the Terminator determined to track down Sara (Lee, not Conner).

Within a relatively reasonable timeframe I’d found my products, and headed to the checkouts. And here’s where the lie hit home.

We’ve been told by Supermarkets that self-checkouts are there to provide a ‘better shopping service’ and to ‘make it easier for time-starved customers’. It’s for our convenience, they say. It makes life easier, they say.

Well, my experience was somewhat less than convenient, as I tried to convert one basket-full of items into purchases.

It didn’t start well.

I chose a card-only self-service machine as these are most common and I always pay by card. And as usual, it had huge a banner proclaiming ‘CARD PAYMENT ONLY’ that was impossible to miss. All well and good, I was duly informed. But then why does it force me to ‘agree’ to paying by card, after I have seen the unmissable message, approached and selected it and must obviously (like the vast majority of customers) be happy to pay by card?

“This checkout only accepts card payments,” it soberly tells me, “Do you wish to proceed?” Yes, I select, please proceed. With a sigh of annoyance, I get going.

Basket on the left, empty bags on the right ready to receive them. And then…

“Unexpected item in bagging area.”

Since it’s a bagging area I had assumed a bag would be relatively expected. Silly me. But maybe the problem was that I had several bags together? Was that it? I pulled out all of the other bags leaving just my freezer bag ready for the frozen items. Now I could…

“Unexpected item in bagging area.”

Great - so, I can’t place a bag in the bagging area. Wonderful. Now I’m thinking the only option left is to put my nice food items into the bag ON THE FLOOR (which, by the way, had some very dodgy looking lettuce leftovers scurrying around looking for a way out of the store - not that I blamed them). So the bag goes on the floor. The self-service check momentarily relaxes, and consents to letting me scan an item. My frozen veggies are scanned, and placed in the bag.

“Please place item in bagging area.”

Of course! What was I thinking!!! You can’t not weigh your items you donut! Whilst figuratively smacking myself for being an idiot I picked up my bag and place it on the scales with the frozen items within it. But of course, I’m back to square one.

“Unexpected item in bagging area.”

The bag! Of course, I’ve made the rookie shopper mistake of thinking my bag doesn’t count! Of course it does - the store wants me to bring my own bag but I can’t expect to actually use it and get away with that! Crazy man.

So now my bag goes back on the floor, momentarily disrupting the escaping fragments of lettuce, and my frozen peas settle onto the bagless bagging area.

But alas, I waited too long to resolve my stupidity, and the self-service checkout has decided I’m obviously hatching some dastardly plot - it’s called for help, and refuses to act until a staff member turns up, eyes me off, pokes suspiciously at my quickly thawing peas, glances into my dejected and hapless bags on the floor, and then keys in the mystery code of power known only to the few, before retreating. I’m back to ‘next item please’.

Only now I’ve got a problem - as I scan the items in, they’re refusing to stay put on the now damp and slippery (and completely bagless) bagging area. What to do?

At this point a rather beaten down customer leans in from a self-service checkout further down the line, and in a conspiratorial manner whispers “Wait till that light goes green then you can move them into the bag”. He quickly returns to his own shopping as if terrified his advice will bring down the ire of the self-service guard on duty.

But he’s right - and there it was. One at a time, scan the item, place it on the no-bag area, and wait. Then, once safe, once no alarms scream, place item on the floor, in your bag, watched over carefully by staff lest I take a shortcut. Rinse, and repeat.

Then, after selecting a card-only payment checkout, and after then having to confirm that I’m happy to continue on this card-only payment checkout, the card-only payment checkout asks me how I’d like to pay - presumably, I think, by card? Just hazarding a guess.

By the time I joined the salad fragments and escaped the store I was about ready to scream at the next device that tells me Unexpected item in bagging area. I am the first person to vote for automation, and you won’t find anyone readier for robots and machines to make our lives better. But the operable word there is ‘better’. I’m 100% behind the removal of single use plastic bags, and I’m more than happy for self-service checkouts to exist.

But the simplicity, options and ease of use we’ve been told were delivered are - like that lettuce - missing in action. And the Customer Experience we’re getting right now is an ‘unexpected item’ in our collective service expectations bagging area.

And it’s time someone removed it.