Fiona McCade: Debagged by till tales of frustration

Unknown item in the bagging area. Picture: PA
Unknown item in the bagging area. Picture: PA
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THERE is a small, central Edinburgh supermarket that shall remain nameless. Over the past few years, one by one, the staffed checkouts have slowly been replaced by self-service tills.

I’ve never enjoyed using them, but the other day I had to because the queue for the remaining two “human” checkouts was curling around the block (proof positive that I am not the only one who would rather not serve myself).

I was dreading the experience because something always goes wrong, but this time, we got off to a great start. The machine asked me if I wanted to use my own bag. I wanted to cry out: “Yes, please, you adorable automaton. Let’s save this planet together!” but I had to make do with pressing the “Yes” button.

Then it asked me to place the aforementioned bag on the scale; my pleasure. Then it uttered the words every self-service till-user dreads: “Unknown item in the bagging area.”

“But it isn’t unknown” I said, out loud, like I was in Star Trek, talking to the ship’s computer. “The item is my bag. You know it’s my bag. You asked me to put it on the scale. Remember? About two seconds ago?”

But, unlike Star Trek, this computer wasn’t going to debate the issue. Just more of the same: “Unknown item in the bagging area.”

And that is as far as we got. As I saw it at the time, albeit blinded by Luddite fury, I had three options. I could yell “You have the memory span of a GOLDFISH!” and smash the machine to smithereens, or I could shamefacedly join the queue I’d spurned in the first place, or I could get the hell out of there.

Like 33 per cent of UK citizens, I chose the third option.

A recent survey claims that one in three of us has abandoned a shopping spree after a bad self-service checkout experience and 84 per cent of us have needed help at some time or another, when trying to scan our own goods.

When faced with figures like that, it’s probably time to accept that the service we are getting isn’t from ourselves at all. Either the hapless assistant in charge of the self-service checkouts is helping us, or we’re giving up the ghost.

I admit that I am impatient, which is why I liked the idea of self-service checkouts when they first appeared. Unfortunately, the technology still isn’t efficient enough to make it worth our while, which is why 60 per cent of us say we prefer to head straight for the safety of a staffed till.

Following the “my-bag-is-not-an-unknown-item” debacle, I’ve come up with the following criteria for deciding whether to brave the self-service checkouts. I will only serve myself if, 1) I have no more than one or two items, but even then, only if the barcodes are perfectly pristine, with no creases, tears, or even microscopic anomalies. 2) None of my items have any special offers – a simple 50 per cent reduction sticker, a BOGOF, or extra loyalty points can send those machines haywire. 3) I am in such a good mood that nothing on earth can ruin it, or 4) I don’t have a bag of my own and the staffed checkout has a queue that’s ten miles long, made up entirely of elderly ladies pulling little tartan shopping carts and paying with pre-decimal loose change.

If the supermarkets really wanted to improve our shopping experience – rather than just save themselves money – they would create different types of checkout for different types of shopper.

By all means, preserve the much-loved ten-items-or-fewer queue, and keep the cards-only and cash-only people as far apart as possible, but there is room to be even more imaginative.

There could be a chatty-checkout, for those who want a more social shopping experience.

By congregating in one place, they could talk to each other and be served by the chattiest checkout-operator.

Meanwhile, a dedicated slow-checkout would cater for people who don’t mind taking their time. This would completely clear the decks for people like me to go straight to the I’m-in-a-hurry-but-I-don’t-trust-the-self-service-machines queue.

Until that happens, I reckon I will always be doomed to find something unexpected in the bagging area.

Usually something jumping up and down on the scale and howling with frustration. Yep, it’s me.