Unexpected Customers in the Bagging Area

In recent years, many retail outlets, most notably supermarkets, have been phasing out counters with actual staff, and replacing them with self-service checkouts. These checkouts can be convenient, or can be a pain in the hole. The irritation may be caused by people attempting to use them but not being able to figure them out, or the infamous ‘unexpected item’ message. But overall, if you are competent enough and are capable of packing quickly and efficiently, they can be useful.

There is of course a very valid argument about how they are costing people jobs. With such automation, fewer employees are needed to staff the tills, as generally the ratio seems to be one employee per 4-5 self-service tills*. I can sympathise with this, though I am guilty of using the self-service check-outs. If there are queues for the regular tills, and none for the automated ones, I have generally taken the quicker option. However, recently I have started to notice a reversal of this trend, and an oddity in people’s behaviour towards the payment options.

At first I thought this might be an isolated incident, but the exact same thing has happened in my last three visits to the supermarket, as well as in one other, non-consecutive recent visit. And this occurred in three different supermarkets, so wasn’t just an anomaly concentrated in one location. On each of these visits to stock up on sustenance, I approached the checkouts with my basket (carried, not dragged) of bounty, and noticed that there was a queue for the self-service tills, and none for the regular, staffed checkouts. On three of the four occasions the queues were very long. I obviously went to the regular checkout, paid, packed and left, noting the line of glum, dead-eyed faces that I would have been still standing in had I opted for the self-service route. I had escaped, while they remained Lost in the Supermarket.

I found this behaviour bizarre, and on mulling it over I have come up with five possible explanations for it:

  • All those people politely standing in line were English, and enjoyed the great Anglo-Saxon tradition of politely queuing. Or they were possibly getting used to the idea of queuing for food in a post-Brexit wasteland.
  • Or, they all grew up in the Soviet Union, or other Eastern Bloc states, and were experiencing the melancholy of Ostalgie.

Owing to the demographics of North Inner City Dublin, both of these explanations are quite unlikely. So, on to more plausible ones:

  • They were all suffering from a bout of social anxiety, and couldn’t face interacting with another human. I can empathise with this. I’ve had many such days. Less so since giving up drinking, but the feeling still bubbles up from time to time. Still though, could this really account for the entire line of people?
  • They were all embarrassed by what they were buying. Piles of junk-food perhaps. Or nothing but a dozen tubs of Vaseline. Or tins of dog food, along with some plastic cutlery. Who knows. Maybe they were nervous about being judged for their purchases. I doubt the staff really would bat an eyelid though.
  • Lastly, and most certainly most plausibly, they simply did not even notice the lack of queues at the other tills. This could be down of one of two reasons. Firstly, that they have become such creatures of habit that going to the self-service till is purely automatic. Maybe the beeping and robotic messages may be provoking a kind of Pavlovian response that draws them in. Secondly, it may simply be that they are utterly unobservant. Many of them were gazing into their phone screens as they were standing in line. I think for many people, the periphery no longer exists, as we become more self-absorbed and less aware of what is happening around us.

So in conclusion, I’m going to put all this down to 21st century obliviousness. And if this behaviour continues, manned checkouts will soon disappear completely. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as jobs that can be automated are replaced with other fulfilling positions, and not bureaucratic Bullshit Jobs.


*purely from my own observances, I have not read any study on this.

4 thoughts on “Unexpected Customers in the Bagging Area

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