This week saw my grandmother’s 80th birthday. And, in keeping with my inimitable skill for finding the best gifts in a haze of panic-buying, I found myself in Tesco an hour before her party; roaming the aisles, desperately seeking ‘the perfect gift’. Fast forward 15 minutes and I was heading toward the checkout.
There’s something quite extraordinary about the moment when I arrive at the tills. I morph into a sniper – stealthily surveying the scene before me…trying to filter the mass of information bombarding my brain rapidly, in order to make a decision. Where to go? There’s only a split second to decide which aisle; after which I have to live…or die, with the consequences. There’s a pressure, an urgent desperation… which checkout to choose and what if I pick the wrong one?
Have I got less than ten items? Yes I do. So, it’s the basket aisle, surely! Nope, I’m a victim of premature relief – there’s someone standing there with 2 turnips, a box of Fixadent and a moneybag full of copper coins… it’ll take too long. Next option? There’s a woman with an entire trolley-full of shopping on the conveyer belt waiting to be scanned or a smallish queue at the self-serve checkout. Which one? I plump for the self-serve.
Next dilemma – three aisles of self-serve checkouts and only one queue…immediately putting me in mind of the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge where traffic from 20 toll booths suddenly merges through chaos into 3 lanes. We’re stood single-file, wrapped around the clothing section. When our time comes, we are to fan out to one of the three aisles. We resemble meerkats; stood to attention, head twitching and turning – making sure that interlopers don’t bypass the queue and make a crafty entry to one of the checkouts.
Surveying my competition, I realise I’ve made the wrong choice. People who hadn’t even parked their car outside by the time I started queuing, are now being served at the basket and conveyer belt aisles! Meanwhile, at the self-serve checkouts, the solitary checkout helper (stoically limping with her arthritic hip) is trying to weave between tills, armed with a magic store card that brings freedom to customers. Every two seconds a light tells her she’s needed – security tagged DVD, bottle of wine, fondue set and a cuddly toy… then blu tack. A conversation starts in the queue about the absurdity of having a minimum age requirement for such an innocuous item as blu tack. A primary school teacher points out it has a similar function to glue and earnestly suggests it could be considered a gateway into to Class 3 narcotic use.
Nearly everyone has an unexpected item in their baggage area, or otherwise not enough items in their baggage area. I overhear poor solitary checkout lady tell a customer that this job has done more for her weight loss than the Cabbage Soup diet did in the 70’s. A woman chatting on her mobile phone is trying swiping her I ♥ Benidorm key ring, confused as to why she’s not getting any points… rumours flood the queue that she has also absentmindedly pulled out her kidney donor card to pay.
Finally I get to a checkout. Result! I have to call over poor checkout lady twice. Once because I need my age authorised (lest I brandish my newly purchased bonsai tree as a weapon) and secondly for a bag… for which I have to part with 5p. Five minutes later, I’m out the other end. I’m exhausted, ready for a valium and a lie down.
Recovering in the car on the way home, my thoughts drift to holidays and the valuable self-serve lesson Tesco could have learned if only they’d taken the time to observe any Brit asked to retrieve their own continental breakfast on a half-board holiday to Majorca. While the Germans like logistical whippets, return to their tables at lightning speed with plates stacked with magnificent food structures that simply resonate ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’; the Brits are mulling around the butter discussing whether it can be trusted. Twenty minutes later, they’ll wander back to their seats with two bowls of dry muesli (because that milk looks “suspect”, like it could be from a goat) and a floppy slice of bread (because they couldn’t figure out how to use that damn toasting machine).
So, what’s the moral of the story? Well, apart from keeping your kids away from blu tack and taking your own milk on holiday, there are several. Primarily, however, it is an interesting reflection on our perverseness as consumers.
There is no doubt we have an increasing and overwhelming desire to do everything quicker, faster and easier. Companies introduce ways and means to meet those demands; yet we’re still not happy. Possibly because our tolerance levels have plummeted in line with our anticipated waiting times… and even then we still demand that it’s quicker, faster and easier.
As consumers pushing for speedier service, have we actually accomplished the opposite… and painted ourselves into a corner in the room of frustration?