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Rachel Bowlby

  • Checkout: A Life on the Tills by Anna Sam
    175 pp, £6.99, July 2009, ISBN 978 1 906040 29 1

Sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or family groups, the people walk up to the top of the aisles and wait their turn for the service. They push their carts, in which they have carefully placed, one at a time, all the bright things that will be theirs. One at a time, the things are then taken out of the cart and set down on the moving surface of the altar. One at a time, the priest – most often a woman – takes hold of each of the things with her hands, and with a blessing marked by a special high-pitched sound as she gently touches an illuminated object above the altar they are passed to the other side. There they are picked up – one at a time – by the people, put into bags, and then returned to the cart. Certain words are spoken. At the end, a shiny card is put into a little slot and taken out again, and a folded slip of paper is given to the people by the priest. The people depart into the world outside with their things.

The anthropologist has come from another planet or another time, perhaps the time when Zola called the department store, new in his day, ‘the cathedral of modern commerce’. No continent is now without supermarkets, the least remarked yet most ubiquitous American cultural export of the 20th century. Supermarkets began in the Depression of the 1930s, taking advantage of an already car-borne population who could travel for miles to the makeshift outlets set up in disused factories and warehouses, happy to ‘wait on themselves’ in return for the bargains they drove home. Within a very few years, supermarkets had become the normal mode of food-selling in the United States, and ‘self-service’ became the shopping revolution of the century. A commentator on retail trends called M.M. Zimmerman set himself up as worldwide promoter of the big new idea but it was several decades before other countries, each initially in its own idiosyncratic way, began to feel its effects.

In Britain the first self-service stores, after the Second World War, were little bigger than the average front room, and even when they started to grow they stayed where the shops had always been, on the high street, until planning restrictions on edge-of-town sites were loosened in the 1980s. At that point the trip to the supermarket, in the car, became for many a weekly ritual – and often, after 1994, on Sundays, when that restriction was lifted too. France out-supermarketed all its neighbours, and America too, by spawning vast hypermarchés from the 1960s, but it has also, much more so than Britain, maintained a culture of local shopping and small stores along with the mega-sized new ones. In recent decades, British and French chains like Tesco and Carrefour have been among the biggest players in a rush to colonise newly capitalist countries across the world with this particular feature of the Western lifestyle.

The crucial change brought about by self-service is that it takes away the one-on-one exchange between the customer and the seller. In the traditional over the counter situation, a woman comes into a shop, waits her turn, produces her list, and asks the assistant for what she wants. He fetches and weighs it and bags it up for her, and perhaps he gives her advice about which or how much or a special offer this week. When self-service came along, this supplanted scene looked different depending on how you regarded the new practice. For one side it became a spectacle of old-fashioned dirt, disorder and rip-offs. Now, thankfully, the customer was in control and could pick out the things she wanted, in her own time: no shoddy goods slipped in, no waiting about, no grubby hands on her potatoes and no intrusively personal attention to what she was buying. For defenders of the old procedure, the same story spun itself the other way round. Self-service meant the blandness of plastic packaging and the loss of human familiarity, of the shopkeeper who knew and cared about his stock and his customers. It also meant that you were doing the work yourself.

These alternative pictures can be linked to a history of ways of thinking about shopping that reaches far back. The pedlar coming to the rural cottage, his store on his back, is a romantic figure, the bringer of new things and stories from afar; the door to door salesman is his crude 20th-century descendant, foot over the threshold, pushing his way in where neither he nor his tacky wares are wanted. With another small shift of the viewfinder, the salesman becomes, in Arthur Miller’s famous play, the very image of the unhappiness and failure of the ordinary 20th-century man. Moving further back again, the shopgirl in the 19th-century department store looks both innocent and moderately glamorous; she is working in a classy new metropolitan environment but probably comes from the provinces, like many of the ladies she serves. She works very long hours for very small wages, but her customer may not be well off either: as they perform their different roles, they share a fantasy of the beautiful shop and the grand life in which they are taking part.

When it comes to the supermarket, the mystique of the selling encounter has seemingly gone, and so has the variability. The human salesperson is no more, his or her role substituted by whatever forms of persuasion or plain information the product package supplies. Salesmanship manuals in the early part of the 20th century had attended with pride and delight to the nuances of the exchange between seller and buyer, described in terms of identifiable stages that might or might not result in a sale. But writers at that time were also beginning to refer to a figure called the ‘silent salesman’, the non-human successor to the talking version. The silent salesman could be a poster or a package or a window display – or, for that matter, a cardboard dummy. The good thing about this neutral figure was that it didn’t interfere with you; the bad thing – usually a bad thing – was that it didn’t speak a word to you. Later on, the shelves of the supermarket would be seen as one long array of silent salesmen, with all the products vying to attract the customer’s attention, interest, desire and finally purchase. How that appeal was supposed to work depended on whether the customer was imagined (as she often was, especially in the postwar decades) as a ‘mindless’ machine responding automatically to scientifically predictable features of colour and layout; or whether, on the contrary (there was little in the way of middle ground), she was imagined as a model of informed rationality, sensibly comparing prices and quality to the best of her knowledge.

And imagined was what the customer was: imagined obsessively and fantastically, in endless, compendious American surveys which tracked her movements through the store, silently following her solitary passage along the aisles, with only her cart for company. But on the other side, the selling side, there seemed to be no one left to imagine: no salesperson whose skills or whose own disposition might have some significant part to play. Which is what makes the checkout operator, present and active at the point of sale but not at the point of choice, an interestingly neglected figure, until now written out of the supermarket story.

The checkout itself, far from being ignored, has always been a focus of anxious attention for supermarket chains. It is the point at which every customer, however darting or drifting their time in the store has been up till then, just wants to get on and get out; the point at which freedom of movement is suddenly brought to a halt; the point at which casually picking up whatever you think you might want becomes basically having to pay. The single great event in the history of the checkout was the improvement in speed and accuracy enabled by the invention of the barcode (the till receipt from the first ever barcode transaction, at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio in 1974, is now on display at the Smithsonian). At the checkout, unlike anywhere else in the public part of the store, efficiency is all; a given task must be completed as fast as possible. Yet this, the one stage in the supermarket shopping sequence which really is mechanical, is also the only point at which another person is necessarily involved along with the customer.

From this point of view, the checkout might look like the last survival of the old scene in the shop: there is a counter and on the other side of it a human being. But this formal resemblance conceals the great difference. The cashier, unlike the shop assistant, has no role to play in the customer’s choice of what to buy, no words to say beyond formulaic instructions and questions; the job is just to get the given things scanned and paid for. Apart from speed, the only possible achievement is negative, not to have made a mistake.

It is not a promising position. The supermarket cashier joins a long line of sales personnel in history, but her presence and her predicament have gone unrepresented in manuals and novels and plays and films, even those in which shopgirls – and sales clerks – have sometimes appeared as figures of interest and complexity, to themselves as well as to their customers. Supermarket workers have simply not inspired the sort of curiosity or wish-fulfilling story that emerged so readily in relation to their historical antecedents. Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames, for instance, energetically documents the social and economic world of a late 19th-century Paris department store, and lightens its informational load with the fantasy story of a special shopgirl who ends up marrying the owner – and also sharing the running of the store. Supermarkets themselves, unlike other kinds of shop, have been largely passed over in literature despite their presence, over some decades now, in most women’s and now most people’s weekly lives. They are associated with routine and repetition: with ‘doing the shopping’, getting a job done, rather than ‘going shopping’, an open-ended pastime. Food retail is shopping’s everyday background, setting off the styles and surprises of less ordinary purchases. When George Gissing, in New Grub Street, wanted to think of a title for the ultimate unsellably boring book, he came up with Mr Bailey, Grocer.

So Anna Sam’s Checkout fills a gap in what was never imagined as any kind of market. It really is an account of what it is like to work in the contemporary equivalent of the grocer’s, and it was a bestseller in France last year. Sam worked behind the till for eight years at a large supermarket in Rennes. Her book is written as if it were a survival manual for the novice checkout worker. No frills – no plot or romance. (What not to say when you are asked at the interview why you want the job? ‘Because my mother was a checkout girl’; ‘Because I’ve always dreamed of working in a supermarket.’) Just the small incidents and frustrations of any likely day, told in a series of tiny themed chapters. Once hired, there is a mentor to guide you through the first few shifts, but after a month you will be used to the beeping, used to the exhaustion. You will be like a machine; or, more lovingly put, it will be ‘as if you and your till were one’ – ‘Mes caisses, mes amours.’ There is also the friendly conveyor belt – more softly and magically, the tapis. With a sudden lurch forward or finely timed breakdown it is ready to join with you in upsetting the carefully stacked goods of a quibbling customer.

With these fragile intimacies of screen and button, it is a strangely isolated job, performed out of sight of your colleagues in the line (30 checkouts in Sam’s store), but right in front of the people passing before you as you physically move their purchases along. Most of the time the customers are occupied with each other, or with their own small moment of manual labour, unloading the trolley and filling the bags, and they don’t even look at the person to whom they hand their card (half seriously, half not, Sam is grateful to the man who bothers to say hello in the middle of a conversation on his mobile). But they are quick to speak up when there is any kind of delay (‘this always happens to me’). There is even a woman who shuts up a child with the thought that she’ll end up like that lady, working behind a checkout, if she doesn’t try harder at school.

Sam evokes her solitude and powerlessness when faced with difficult customers. She describes moments of drifting off into a kind of computer-game reverie, suspended somewhere above the blinking screen and the moving belt, beyond the muzak and the beeps. Or, in the mode of pseudo-advice, she suggests that once your movements and words have become automatic, as soon they will, you should put your thinking mind on standby, and save your brain cells for your old age.

Sam steers a delicate course between showing the (sometimes) comic variety of the shoppers (‘the entire range of human stupidity – and you will be delighted to know that it is limitless’) and the sheer monotony and relentlessness of the work. There are a few unforgettable customers, from the repulsive to the astonishing. One dumps down for scanning a half-eaten sandwich dripping with tuna mayo; another has a CD smoothly sequestered inside a Camembert box, a perfect fit; an obliviously snogging couple have four small children in tow. Sam weighs up just how many tons of goods she lifts per hour, per shift, per year. She figures out the average number of times a day she says hello goodbye are you all right for bags today do you have a loyalty card please enter your pin. She notes the exact time used up in walking to the toilets, walking to the staffroom, queuing, eating, and then walking back to the checkout, during the 18-minute break that is allowed during a six-hour shift. She watches how long it takes for the last customers of the evening, while she waits to get home, to pause and pick and pause and pick again at the end of the aisle. Minute by minute, she notes the movements of their opposite number, the couple who turn up half an hour before opening time to get the best parking place, angrily tap at their watches as they wait to be let in, whizz round the store, and then – she imagines – find themselves back at home with only an empty day before them. This is the one time that Sam ventures into the world away from the store, and she gets her own back by seeing these people enjoying a life as futureless in its way as that of the checkout girl they have just barged past.

Sam’s till-bound cashier is in no way a supermarket equivalent of Zola’s rising heroine, but her real-life story and that of her book have been ‘a bit like a modern fairy tale’, as she says in an afterword to the new French edition. She had begun working on the checkout when she was a student, and stayed put when she didn’t find the kind of job she wanted after finishing her degree. Later she started a blog, caissierenofutur, to share stories with fellow checkout workers. On the very day she finally quit, but with nothing particular in prospect, a local newspaper ran a story about the blog which was picked up by the national media. Within no time publishers were fighting for the book contract, and soon caissierenofutur had been transformed into Les Tribulations d’une caissière, now translated into nearly 20 languages. There are plans for a Hollywood movie.