Wednesday, June 12, 2024


Yesterday I went to the post office and in the course of serving me, the assistant called me “sweetheart” a dozen times. “Can you just pop it onto the scales for me, sweetheart?”…”That’s your receipt for the money and that’s your receipt for tracking the item, sweetheart”…”I’m sorry, sweetheart, we don’t have any ten pound notes this morning”…etc.

I liked it. I’ve never understood those (often strident) people who say they feel demeaned when a stranger calls them love or pet or darling or sweetheart.

I like being treated in a friendly way. I like interacting with human beings in public life. But robots are taking over.

On his most recent trip to Sainsburys to stock up on yoghurt, Dave inadvertently brought home some yogurts he didn’t want. He took three trays of six yoghurts off the natural yoghurt shelf (all that there were), but when he got home he found some unwelcome interlopers - several strawberry yoghurts. They had been mixed up with the natural ones and the cartons look so similar that if you’re in a hurry you don’t notice.

He was most distressed, and not just because he always always prefers natural yoghurt. He was upset because the strawberry yoghurts are more expensive, which meant he owed Sainsburys money. He is honest. Utterly and completely honest. So he rang Sainsburys to pay over the phone for the money he owed and the phone was answered by a robot. The robot could not understand what Dave wanted and after several attempts, the robot said they were trying to improve all the time but they couldn’t understand him and then they said goodbye. The robot ended the conversation! The bloody cheek! There was no option to talk to a human being.

At that point I would have said “Sod Sainsburys!” thinking they didn’t deserve the money. Not so, Dave. He couldn’t bear the thought of not paying the correct price for an item, even if he didn’t like it. So he routed his bike ride past the shop and went in to pay. The supervisor who was called could not understand what Dave wanted. You want money back for some items but you haven’t brought them or the receipt? 

He explained again. The woman was flummoxed. This had obviously never happened before. Once she understood and heard that the figure was £3.60 she said thank you but it didn’t matter: there was no need to pay.

This is a long story already but what I wanted to rant about was the dehumanisation of the shopping experience and this is just one example. I hate, loathe and despise self checkouts. I can see they are a boon if you’ve just popped into the shop for a handful of items and you’re in a hurry. But the norm these days in even large supermarkets - such as our local Sainsburys - is to have only two manned checkouts open and to herd everyone else into the self checkouts. I always choose the manned checkout. Going round Sainsburys these days is bad enough: it feels like a bleak warehouse and finding someone to help you locate an item is as difficult as trying to find the item itself.

In some smaller shops there is no option, and there are only self checkouts, so I seek out a member of staff and plead complete ignorance and ask them to help.

I object to the dominance of self checkouts on several grounds:

They cost jobs;

Supermarkets make money out of their customers and they should provide a service - not expect customers to do their work for them;

Most of all I hate it because it cuts out yet another human interaction from public discourse. Everywhere we see headlines saying loneliness is a huge problem these days, for all kinds of people of all ages. The only face to face human interaction some people experience in a day is if they go to the shop. Now even this is being taken away from them.

There are some supermarket chains who are realising that not everyone wants self checkouts. In the Netherlands the supermarket chain Jumbo introduced manned checkouts where customers can have a chat with the assistant while they’re being served. These have proved so popular that they have increased the number. A chain in the northwest of England called Booths have also reduced their self checkouts. 

I go to Aldi every week and they’re going in the opposite direction. The Aldi experience is something else, whereby the checkout assistants will not wait for you to pack your items and it’s stressful. But at least they do it with a smile. Well…some of them do. There was one checkout assistant who always seemed to look down her nose at me…so much so that I would come home and say to Dave that I thought she despised me. So not all human interactions in the public sphere are uplifting. But at least they are human.

We need these interactions not just to combat loneliness but so we all remember how to live together amicably. Covid and lockdowns damaged community cohesion and the norms of public behaviour which is why some ignorant people use their phones during concerts and plays. Hey ho.

I will conclude by saying (rather randomly!) that the Coventry Building Society telephone service is top notch. Full marks for a personal approach that cheers up your day.

And now, to make up for all of these words, here is a photo of the moonpennies on our back lawn that I’ve been cherishing during no-mow May and into June.


Anonymous said...

I have experienced one or two rare occasions of being called ‘love’ in a demeaning, bossy kind of way.

But like you, Sue - I find it quite a lift to be treated to those friendly terms.
One of the best is to be casually called ‘my lover’ - without any strings at all. That’s Cornwall for you!

And I’ll never forget the warm glow of being called ‘my angel’ by a character at Tring auction house.


Sue Hepworth said...

I like those two, too!