Bring back checkout staff and put customer service back into supermarkets

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Supermarkets have become utterly miserable and soul-less. The days when check outs were bustling places have been replaced by a do it yourself approach carried out in a weary silence, broken only by the monotonous beep, beep, beep of the scanner.

I was in Sainsbury the other night, and almost crashed my trolley into a freezer as I saw the changes made to the check outs. The long row of manned tills has all but been dismantled and replaced by pens for self-service, including one entire area sectioned off for trolleys. Asda is just as bad, and getting a loaded trolley through a self-service check out in Morrisons is simply time you will never get back.

I’m not sure the phrase ‘customer’ service’ can apply when the customer pretty much does it all these days. The only ‘service’ of any note is when someone wanders across, punches in a mysterious code, and departs without so much as a word. They don’t even go ‘beep’ for the fun of it.

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Self service is great when you have a few items. Bringing in express check outs for ten items or less was a cracking idea - we’ve all huffed and puffed when stuck with a pint of milk and tonight’s tea behind someone doing ‘the big shop’ and we’ve all mentally counted up the items in other baskets and frowned disapprovingly at someone with 12 or 13.Supermarkets exploited our enthusiasm for a quick in-out and have taken the whole concept to ridiculous levels under the guise that ‘this is what customers want.’

How supermarket check outs looked in 1979 (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)How supermarket check outs looked in 1979 (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
How supermarket check outs looked in 1979 (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

And now they’ve been rumbled. Booths, a supermarket chain in the north of England, has just announced it is putting checkout staff back behind tills at 26 of its 28 stores. Why? Well, they’ve listened to what customers want! Interestingly, Booths added: “We feel it is the right thing to do.”

I’d never heard of the chain - often dubbed the ’Waitrose of the north’ - until now, and, unfortunately, they don’t operate in Scotland, but if Booths can do this so can Asda, Morrisons, and Sainsbury, because it is the right thing to do.

They’re getting away with minimal staffing at check outs in the evenings - find me more than one manned till and I’ll donate you all my reward points - and cutting points of contact to the absolute bone. We’re one step away from stocking the shelves ourselves. Aldi and Lidl may have more self service check outs, but they still have people at the tills who are super fast and friendly. If they can do it, why can’t the bigger supermarkets?

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I’m scunnered shouting at the self scanners when they tell me there’s a surprise item in the bagging area. No there isn’t - I put it there! Give me a real person who can whizz the items through on no time, sort out any problems with a missing barcode, and not have to check if I’m old enough to buy that bottle of wine I’ll need to soothe my banging headache after spending the next ten minutes trying to pack all the stuff I’ve just emptied bit by bit into a useless heap while the queue behind me grows with impatience.

I get we’ll never return to the days of divvi numbers at the Co-Op, but sometimes, just sometimes, the old ways were much better.

If Booths ever open here I’ll be first in the checkout queue.