People who need people

‘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.

You’re expensive.

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.’

This entry was posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to People who need people

  1. What a super post!
    Amazon is a filthy organisation…have you seen how they are burning money, year after year, in order to drive out their competition and become a monopoly supplier.

    When visiting mother I have seen exactly what you describe…staff who have time for people and vice versa, whether it be Asda orWaitrose.
    Lonely people who come out just for their daily contact with a human voice…

    Here I have been surprised by the number of people asking how my husband is getting on while we are queueing for something or other…I am not aware of knowing them, but more people know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Helen. Totally agree about Amazon. I am always surprised by people who (sotto voce: arguably should know better than to) shop with Amazon for more or less everything. I sell my book on Kindle but that’s about it! Useful. But still shouldn’t have done it!
      And you’re right, it doesn’t matter what kind of shop it is, real human beings tend to have time to spare to notice and say a few words to those who take the trouble to make eye contact at least. Though in the Co-op, being much less busy, staff do tend to have more of the chatting time to spare and frankly more of the people shopping there are obviously struggling one way or another.
      And how is Leo? When is your trip (or have I missed that?)


  2. Ardys says:

    Very thought provoking. I am one of those who likes the anonymity of the grocery self checkouts, mostly because after years and years of trying to get the check out person to pack my bags so I can lift them, I finally gave up. Occasionally in other shops I enjoy a little banter but generally banter is not my thing. I do love people-watching when I’m out though, and your writing is very similar to my own observations. I have even taken notes from overheard conversations sometimes…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I realise now there are differences in shopping across our globe! We don’t have people packing our bags here, as I seem to recall they do in the USA (or the bits I visit) too. At the mainstream supermarket I mentioned we are asked if we want help with packing but there are no baggers. I don’t actually invite conversation but sometimes it just happens and I quite like it. This is a friendly area, Liverpool down the road is especially chatty. When I take the train in I often get enough material for a novel – without even trying!


  3. You make me realise how much fondness I have for these everyday transactions. At either of our local supermarkets, the smaller co-op or bigger chain, the staff are friendly locals, who are happy to help and have a chat. Sometimes it means the following person has to wait a bit longer, but if you can’t wait for that then what else is worth waiting for? Life’s too short to hurry through it.

    Liked by 1 person

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