The Spy at the Checkout

One of the things I’ve noted at Sainsbury’s is the plethora of targets. Quite rightly, they aim for customer satisfaction. However, I wonder if the people responsible for targets have ever really looked at the service from the customer’s point of view, or considered what the customer really wants. For example, one of the targets for checkout staff is not only that they should put shopping through at a certain speed to avoid queues (good), but they are supposed to engage in conversation with the shopper simultaneously. As a shopper, I don’t want conversation. Politeness, yes, but conversation, no. I’m here to shop, not engage in small talk. I don’t like small talk at the best of times. So when I’m shopping, I want to get in there, get on with it and get out as expediently as possible.

Now, it seems, others are jumping onto this bandwagon with the intention of annoying me even more.

Workers are being taught how to spot people who look after elderly, sick and disabled relatives by the contents of their shopping baskets, so they can be advised about support they are entitled to.

Cashiers are being trained to discretely ask customers about their personal circumstances while serving them.

They can then put those requiring help in touch with charities that can provide information on financial and practical assistance and respite care.


Okay, I’m not a carer. However, if I was, I wouldn’t want the person on the checkout at my local Sainsbury’s asking me about it. I would clam up rather than spill the beans. It is, after all, none of their business and I would keep it that way. If I needed help, I would go out and find it. It’s what I’ve always done when I’ve needed outside help. That is why we have such organisations as the Citizens’ Advice Bureau after all.

Apparently pharmacists are also being “trained” to do this. A pharmacist is already trained to discuss treatments and symptoms when dispensing medicines. I’ve had some long discussions about my health history relating to my migraines when buying triptans for example. This is fair enough and if one is buying for an infirm relative, the pharmacist will still want to be sure that the medicine is dispensed correctly according to need and medical history. So there is a slight difference here. However, if all one is doing is collecting a prescription, I would expect no more than to pay for it an walk out, I wouldn’t expect questioning over my circumstances as it isn’t relevant, the GP has dealt with the issue of appropriate medicine. Personal circumstances are just that; personal.

However, concerns have been raised that the initiative intrudes on people’s private lives.

Daniel Hamilton, of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “It strikes me as something that will make a lot of people uncomfortable. They are trying to do the right thing but they have to be careful about how they do it.”

It does intrude on peoples’ private lives (and it would make me feel uncomfortable). That is the whole point. And as such it is an intrusion too far even if it is being touted as “for our own good”. Aren’t all these initiatives “for our own good” after all?

People have tongues in their heads. If they need help, they can ask. If they don’t, it does not justify using the check-out operator as a defacto spy on everyone passing through their tills.

A spokesman for Sainsbury’s, which is piloting the scheme, said all questioning would be done in an “absolutely discrete and unobtrusive manner”.

That’ll be a another target on the list, then…

29 comments for “The Spy at the Checkout

  1. June 16, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I see the English language is taking a pounding again, and our MSM doesn’t even notice; ‘discreet’ isn’t the same thing as ‘discrete’… 😡

    • June 16, 2011 at 7:24 pm

      I am, of course, assuming that was in the press release and they’ve printed it verbatim.

      • June 16, 2011 at 9:57 pm

        I suspect so.

  2. June 16, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    And there was me thinking the checkout chap in the local Tesco who asked me whether I liked the new Stella beer was genuinely taking an interest in me…

    • June 17, 2011 at 12:54 pm

      Well, you really never know, do you? 😉

  3. June 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    If you buy a cream-cake they always seem to comment on how delicious they look. Unfortunately I just put it down to training, but presumably in some cases it may not be which is a pity.

    I’ll be less cynical if one day they tell me “this pack of four tins is actually more expensive than four single tins. Do you want to change it?”

    • June 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm

      I’ve had similar conversations in Marks & Spencer! If they are doing a promotion of the ‘BOGOF’ type, and I’ve not noticed and picked up one item, they always ask if I want the other…

      • June 17, 2011 at 4:27 pm

        Boots do this too. When I bought some hay-fever tablets recently they told me I could have another one free.

        • 6079SmithW
          July 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm

          Waitrose failed to do when I had a slight failure of perception and presented 3 items of a ‘buy one get one free’ offer.

          My plea in mitigation is that they were twin packs and my confusion was entirely understandable, m’lud.


  4. Dutch Steamboat
    June 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Perhaps they meant ‘discrete’ as in ‘outside the normal intercourse associated with the transaction’.

    Or perhaps the person who penned this did not understand English. Place your bets.

  5. June 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Politeness, yes, but conversation, no. I’m here to shop, not engage in small talk. I don’t like small talk at the best of times. So when I’m shopping, I want to get in there, get on with it and get out as expediently as possible.

    Yes but not everyone is. I’ll deliberately choose a person who looks as if she’ll talk. Once someone said there’s no one at this automatic till. I didn’t want it. I was quite happy to wait the five minutes.

    • June 16, 2011 at 9:59 pm

      Not me. Get in there, get on with it, get out, got it?

      No prizes for getting the reference 😉

    • WitteringWitney
      June 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

      Ye Gods, waiting to chat up a “tiller-girl”? James, you need to get out more! 🙂

  6. WitteringWitney
    June 16, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Ah, but some of us shop at Waitrose for a much better class of service (and tiler-girls!) and yes, I have had that “4 seperates cheaper” when they had a promotion on which I had not noticed!

  7. Edgar
    June 16, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    It’s the checkout operators who are going to get the flak. Suggest quietly asking the checkout ‘colleague’ to summon the store manager, then give him/her the appropriate level of invective. It’s simply not British, this being greeted at the door, being talked to by assistants, being nannied by soap-powder pedlars. Culture’s going down the toilet, or maybe the ‘john’ …

    • June 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm

      Yup, why give the monkey a taste of the rough edge of your tongue when you could go straight for the organ-grinder?

      • PT
        June 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm

        Agreed. I’ve never had a problem bypassing a manager’s defences when I’ve asked a telephonist or call centre operator to put me through to someone who gets paid enough to be shouted at.

  8. June 17, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    If I want a conversational shopping experience (i’m sure that’s what it’s called) I’ll shop at the markets. If I’m in a hurry and just want stuff I’ll probably use the supermarket and I won’t give a rip whether they try to talk if they don’t mind monotone grunts as a response. If I want cheap I order online and the computer doesn’t have anything to say anyway, though still a better conversationalist than some supermarket employees. One exception, though – for some reason the ones who work the tills in the local grog shop sound genuinely happy to be there and are always happy to have as much or as little of a chat as customers are in the mood for. Shame I don’t drink, really 🙄

  9. PPS
    June 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    It is, after all, none of their business and I would keep it that way.

    This is your choice. Other people may not feel that way.
    It’s surprising the amount of help you can get from staff in big superstores with just a kind a word.
    I guess they must be used to dealing with people who don’t really treat them as people.

    Cashiers are being trained to discretely ask customers about their personal circumstances while serving them.
    This way you have a choice, when you’re in front of G-man you either answer or they hold it against it you when it gets to court.

    • June 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm

      preferring to keep my personal life personal and not wishing to engage in small talk is not the same thing as not treating the check-out people as people. As said in the post – politeness, yes, small talk, no. I have no interest in small talk with complete strangers, less so answering questions about my private life discreet or not.

      Interestingly, some of the colleagues (what a silly affectation that is) expressed dismay when they heard about it in the canteen the other day. One said very firmly, “that’s being nosey”. She is right, it is.

      This way you have a choice, when you’re in front of G-man you either answer or they hold it against it you when it gets to court.

      I’m sorry, maybe I’m being dense, but you’ve lost me there.

      • PPS
        June 18, 2011 at 10:11 am

        I have no interest in small talk with complete strangers

        Strangers who meet you may not know that.
        You may be considered them nosy, but you have a choice, see?

        Get in front of a state worker and they’ll offer you what may seem like a choice but if you don’t answer they will hold it against you, one way or another.
        That’s what I mean.

        • June 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm

          Strangers who meet you may not know that.

          Oh, they find out soon enough 😉 I’m one of Dixie’s socially inadequate introverts. 😈

  10. Dixie dean
    June 17, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    What a load of bollocks about pharmacists. I note your absence of references. It may be a govt plan to get us to even more of their bloody work- I already hate being a “tax collector” on their behalf but they would be barking up the wrong tree if they think I or my colleagues would become part of their spy network. If your going to state things without reference so shall I.

    I recall several years ago a survey showing we were second only in the public’s trust next to firemen. Are you going to suggest they are going to be trained spies also? I liked your example of the enquiry about your ‘triptans being ok but if you were picking up a rx no comment would be appropriate.

    That reminds me of a patient of mine about two years ago who got shirty about my questioning in similar circumstances. After refusing to give her her meds(‘triptans)she huffed off to complain to her GP. Her husband came back to thank me a week later for not supplying and facing her toungue bashing. On seeing a different GP at her surgery later that same day – she was informed that her husband would be a widower and her kids without a mother without my ‘prying’ – you can just fuck off!! I’ve ust done an 11 hour day for eight hours wages. No lunch and two cold cups of coffee- and would still do that to help [people] like you. Guess that makes me a Govt lackey then!

    I am getting sick of some of the crap written on these sites. You belittle all of our values and to be honest most of the comments on this thread sound really mean-spirited. How can we ever overcome the tyranny of our dumbed down society and corporate theft if some of you can’t even show some human decency to a min wage shop assistant. This attitude suggests that some of you are just plain jealous of the inadequates who sneer down at us and are such underachievers that can only kick down.

    I only kick up(and occasionally off). Remember a conversation is a two way thing- a great way to unlock imprisoned minds. Everyone we meet is deserving of respect and a potential mind to be opened- use these opportunities to engage and educate. Otherwise you may find yourself just a loser with a keyboard preaching to the converted.

    Humanise the de-humanised and we all gain. Calmed down a bit now-Guess I was a bit cross earlier in this post. That’s the advantage with crap typing skills- less emotional by the end- but I hope you get the message.

    Regards Dixie

    • June 18, 2011 at 6:11 am

      Admin note – I’ve removed two references to pricks and knobheads because the argument still needs to be put [you’ll see it has been untouched apart from those words]. [People] has been put in instead and the second reference to “you prick” also bit the dust.

      Please refer to our comments policy.

    • June 18, 2011 at 6:18 am

      “You belittle all of our values …”

      We do? Maybe that’s because the ‘values’ being espoused by the progressives aren’t ours?

      And no-one on this site would object to a pharmacist querying what other drugs a patient might be taking before dispensing prescribed medication, surely? That’s just common sense.

      It’s the personal prying into other’s lives by checkout operators in supermarkets that is the issue here.

  11. Dixie dean
    June 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Apologies for language. Been kinda stressed and torn between my own personal values to aid and support others and the business side of my proffesion has been weighing hard and am under pressure to “reduce my customer service” – have recently been removed from my regular place of work as my employer says” I don’t exploit retail opportunities”, – I still won’t. . Bit dejected by feeling that i was being shot at by both sides. Sorry. I know u are the good guys so I guess I took it personal- it can be kinda lonely being a lone voice in corporate world. Fortunately for me my Pharmacy’s turnover has nearly doubled in the past three years by my stance- i daily find the public appear more clued up to the illusion of our democracy and I feel an awakening is occurring. Often expressed by the most unlikely of people( shows you never can tell!). I used to think the British were like a spring which would eventually push back- I now believe that we are more like an elastic band that will eventually snap. Thanks for the patience shown with my outburst- I have to follow both the law, company policy, Govt initiatives and my progressional Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics ALWAYS wins- I will be judged in my actions by my peers and this gives comfort(esp. as I have few!). :0). Wife gave me a bit of a rollicking after seeing my post- says most P’cists are socially awkward introverts who could unquestioningly carry out such instructions so I guess it’s up to people like me to inform and raise debate. I would appreciate any info of where the suggestion of P’cists being trained for such practices. If it breaches any confidality issues I pledge to see that it is stopped. It won’t be difficult unless it truly is for sinister reasons then guess I got another front to open. Cheers Dixie

    • June 18, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      No worries 🙂

    • June 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm

      As this seems to have blown over while I was away, I’ll merely add this; it is a good idea to properly read what is written before hitting the keyboard in a righteous rage. Quite simply, I did not say what you accused me of saying – not even close. As for the lack of references, perhaps you should also have read the linked article which mentioned pharmacists as well as Sainsbury’s checkout operators.

      Listen to your wife before commenting next time eh? She is clearly on the ball 😉

  12. 6079SmithW
    July 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    This evening I purchased a quantity of Carlsberg Special Brew from Waitrose. The checkout girl looked to be under 18; indeed my friends’ 15.5 year old looks older.

    Waitrose operate an ‘Under 21’ policy (cf Sainsbury’s ‘Under 25’) for alcohol sales (and probably for tobacco, solvents and ‘sharps’ whatever they are (wits, perhaps?).

    The question therefore arises, should I have challenged the aforementioned checkout girl and demanded ID?

    Just askin’.


Comments are closed.