‘Wait a second, love,’ said the woman in front of me at the Co-op to the man who’d just paid for his shopping. ‘Let me put my shopping through on your loyalty card. I’ve lost mine, someone may as well get the points.’
The man thought a moment, then handed over his loyalty card and minutes later the woman’s food purchases had added to his cash-equivalent points.
But when the card-less shopper left, the man still hung back.
The woman behind the till was slight, grey-haired and quiet. She looked as if, whatever your troubles, she’d lived through worse.
As I emptied my basket and took out my own loyalty card, the man asked, in a quiet voice, ‘How are you, love? How’s he?’
‘Oh, not too bad,’ her hand went to her neck, ‘waiting for more biopsy results.’
I pretended to be occupied with my purse.
The man left, with a look that said much more than his heartfelt, ‘look after yourself, take care now.’
Yesterday I watched two women shoppers deal patiently with an over-friendly, slightly inebriated older man – ‘he was hard work’ one muttered – before exchanging news of funerals.
Not yet elderly, though well beyond young, each bought one packet of cigarettes.
It takes a while, buying cigarettes. All the brands are now in uniform ghastly packaging, behind a closed door. But it doesn’t stop the smokers. As one of the women said, ‘We all know the risks by now, don’t we?’
At this till, there are often long queues. The electronic tills can’t help with the ‘leccy’ or other prepayment-meter cards.
Or sell tobacco or spirits.
Or do the lottery.
Elderly couples, reduced-stickered items stacked in their basket, check to see if they’ve won this week. With a feeble, ‘Put it through the winning machine, love,’ or some such, they’re doing their best to suggest, ‘I don’t really care.’
For one cheery member of staff we’re all of us called, ‘my lovely’. You’d think every day was the best of her life. It’s infectious, whatever our luck or lack of it.
Down the road a couple of miles, at a bigger, mainstream supermarket, a maze of electronic tills occupies the most convenient section of the long checkout area.
Despite the extra walk and inconvenience, the tills run by humans attract long queues.
Plenty of people – especially the elderly, or those with learning and other difficulties – are known regulars.
One day I saw an elderly man sitting, eyes closed, with his shopping by his side. I thought he might have died, since I couldn’t see him breathing, but a passing member of staff assured me he was fine. He regularly cycles in several miles, chats at the till, then naps on a bench by the children’s coin-in-the-slot car ride.
In queues here I’ve chatted to people about many things: politics, religion, recipes, foodbanks – and, of course, the weather.
I’ve watched, surreptitiously I hope, as people count coins to see if they can afford a treat, only to discover they can’t.
I’ve been behind people who plainly struggle with personal hygiene – and much more too, I’d guess.
But it’s a fairly affluent area. Lots of people who queue are plainly far from poor – but still, possibly, disadvantaged on a very basic level. As in, chronically lonely.
Whoever we are, though – lonely or not, rich or poor, struggling or absolutely fine – we don’t just get polite, even kind words from the human beings who tot up our bills. We get time.
Given half a chance, they’ll talk about our shopping. Is that good? What’s that? Have you tried purple sweet potatoes?
Time is money.
People are costly ‘resources’.
And supermarkets exist to make profits.
Electronic tills are cheaper. And, yes, some people like their anonymity and potential for speed. But some people really don’t want to use the soulless machines.
Some people shop in dribs and drabs, most days, so they can see a human being. Have a conversation, however small.
These are customers, but far from being always right, the world of big business doesn’t just think they’re wrong, it doesn’t care.
Amazon, for example, wants us to shop without human intervention.
The firm’s running a trial in the UK delivering parcels with drones. It already delivers to lockers in a range of public places. Cheaper all round, no need for pesky human interaction. And now it’s testing a shop without any tills at all.
Amazon isn’t a people business, doesn’t like such expensive commodities.
Yet how many ‘customers’ use Amazon without thinking about such things? Because it’s cheaper, easier. Because they don’t have local shops (and won’t for long if this keeps up). Because they can’t get out.
Well, for all the lonely people for whom personal shopping’s a mental-health lifeline, I have a warning.
Your money’s all they want. Take your goods and go away.
And have a nice day.
Have a nice day?
The full impact of those words, carelessly uttered, came home to me yesterday as I left the hospital after a routine check on my wrist.
I was in the overspill car park, way beyond the usual pinball-experience-corridors of trolleys, cleaners and walking wounded.
On my return I had to follow the signs for ‘mortuary.’ And I thought of all those who’d followed that sign in earnest, before leaving for their cars.
As I put my ticket in the barrier at the exit, a message came up on the machine.
‘Have a nice day.’
If it were a human being, I think it might rephrase that.
‘Look after yourself, take care, now.’