They like their customer service targets in Tesco, greetings, offers of help with packing, general chat and goodwill, length of wait at a till. You can mark them for it if you fill in a customer service survey for extra club card points when you get home- something you can do on every single visit. Every little helps. Except sometimes it isn’t that simple.
It wasn’t busy in the store. There were no queues and the front of store assistant was hovering around, making work for herself cheerfully.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes thank you.”
The middle aged lady, standing at the next till, almost due to be served was waiting patiently, minding her own business, until the assistant decided to mind it for her. Her face was set in an expression that had seen too much trouble and her long, dark, greying hair had made its way out of her head with no help from a hairdresser.
“There’s a self service till if you want to move across to save waiting.”
The woman gave the assistant a look full of hate that would have felled a prizefighter. She spoke out loudly.
“I can’t read, love.”
The assistant made herself scarce very quickly and the woman caught my eye. I’m sure that she interpreted my shocked face as a reaction to her words, but it wasn’t. It was a reaction to needless, mindless, well meaning busybodying.
I really hope that the woman was just putting the assistant in her place. Three quarters of a lifetime without the comfort and assistance of words would be a hard thing thing to bear, especially when people won’t leave you alone to use the coping strategies that you have built up to manage in a world which is oozing with them. After all, the most likely reason why a person has failed to learn to read is that nobody taught them properly. Generations of intelligent, thoughtful people mostly got by without the benefit of literacy, but back then society was organised with that in mind.
You can’t take account of something of that kind by assessing a bunch of customer service surveys. Only by using your common sense and thinking of people as real, living beings rather than units to be herded to a till as quickly as possible.
I wait ages in Tescos for someone to find someone else to slice my bread in the slicing machine. A cheerful, round little woman turns up and disappears with it. There are terrifying sounds and after a short while she reappears.
“Have we got another one? It’s ate it.”
She is joking, but there is an undercurrent of real fear in her voice. That machine must have eaten bread before. Maybe that’s why they have stopped putting sliced bread out. Maybe that’s why it took so long to find somebody who was brave enough to face it. Those staff only signs were there for a reason. I watch her bustle across to the bread rack. There are two more and she picks up one of them and waddles off. I wait for the roaring crunching noise to start again. There is a tense silence before a newly bagged sliced loaf is given to me in triumph.
“There you are.”
“Thank you very much.”
She widens her eyes at me.
“It ate that other one.”
She plods off to hide behind the swing doors which lead into the store room and get her breath back. I wander around for a minute or two picking up my last few items and marvelling at what you can buy. Things like Half Spoon which lets you still put a whole spoonful of “sugar” in your tea while consuming only half the calories and stuff to put in the rinse cycle of your washing machine to stop your clean washing smelling bad. There are more ways of slightly altering and repackaging soap to be used for various purposes than my grandparents could ever have imagined. More packaging on more things than they would ever have believed possible. My grandfather, a retired farmer who never threw anything away, would have a had a shed full of it. I once bought some loose mushrooms in here and the till wouldn’t accept them. They had been taken “off sale”. Thanks to this revelation from my till a large display tray full of perfectly good mushrooms which had travelled from a far away field had to be rushed out of sight in shame and I had to buy the identical chestnut mushrooms vacuum packed in a plastic box. Madness.
A couple walk past me, the man looking out of place and disoriented as men often do in supermarkets. He is trailing behind his wife and doing his best to be useful.
“Are we all right for chips?”
The withering look that she gives him seems to suggest that they probably are.
I reach the self service till. It saves having to answer stupid questions about whether I need a bag when I am pulling a trolley nearly as big as I am and refusing a points card for the thousandth time. I also don’t need help with my packing. Ever. This makes the self service till a good invention. At least it seemed like that to start with. I mastered the art of scanning quite quickly once I had realised that the touch pad wouldn’t work if I was wearing gloves and that the code on fruit juice cartons was in pale green, not black. It made me quietly proud.
I do all right for a while. Until I press vegetables instead of fruit on the till when I am weighing my apple and confuse it. The uniformed guard next to the till is there in a second. He flaps his floppy card at it and taps at the numbered keypad. Fruit is that one he tells me, pointing at the picture showing various fruits. I wonder if he thinks that I’m unsure which category my apple belongs in or whether he just thinks I can’t recognise a picture of it on a screen. Sadly the fact that I have (reluctantly) had to buy a pink lady apple instead of a cox makes this process quite complicated and I spend so long staring at the screen that he picks up the apple, reads the label and taps the right image before I can stop him. I am mortified.
Things go well for a short while, until I try to weigh some loose carrots. This time it isn’t my fault when the till has another mental breakdown. He comes back. More tapping.
“Don’t know why it did that.”
Nor do I. He has now decided that I have special needs when it comes to using self service tills and he scans my last three items without being asked. A few curt questions and he then tells me that he can “see that I am over 21” and therefore allowed to buy my wine. Given that I am fifty four this is either very observant of him, or a bit insulting. I’m not sure which. He asks me to put my card into the machine. I give him a hard stare, learned at an early age from Paddington bear, and he backs off a bit. The till accepts my number and churns out a receipt.
“Please take your items.”
I put my basket on a pile, out of the way, and open my trolley. By now the till is worried.
“Unidentified item in bagging area! Unidentified item in bagging area!”
I pack my items deliberately slowly, just to wind it up.
Today when I walked past the main street of our small town I saw something which astonished me. A whole mass of fridges and shop fittings piled up on the pavement and in the process of being taken away. The small supermarket on our high street closed a few weeks ago and has been sold on to a new chain. They are doing what was announced on the windows of the shop as a major refit. When I saw the notices I simply didn’t believe it. I have known that supermarket for many years and it has been through several owners without ever showing any sign of improvement. I jokingly nicknamed it “the worst supermarket in the world” and have found quite a number of people who agree with me. Nobody has ever stuck up for it. Once I had the enormous pleasure of being buttonholed by someone outside it doing a customer survey and I didn’t hold back. I really hope that the new owners are going to do better. Here’s just one tiny story to explain why it matters.
The old lady, a quiet and unassuming soul, was standing her ground in the aisle of the supermarket, trying very hard to have her say. She had done her shopping and pushed her trolley all the way back to her bungalow, looking forward to her cup of tea with every step of the way, only to find that the milk that she had bought had gone off. For a few seconds she had felt like having a cry, but that would have done nobody any good so she had just put her coat back on and pushed her trolley back down the long straight road that led from her little estate into the town centre. She really didn’t want to have to explain to the shop assistant that her milk had gone off but there was no point just going in quietly and buying another pint because that might have gone off too if it had the same date on it. She had no choice but to say something. She had just finished her speech explaining what had happened and apologising for being a nuisance when I came past. The assistant was not impressed. She only half turned round from filling up a display of six packs of lager.
“We’ve never had any complaints about our milk.”
The injustice of this reply stopped me in my tracks. The old lady was becoming flustered. She stood there holding her pint of milk, unsure what to do. The milk was off. Surely that wasn’t right? It couldn’t be.
I glared at the assistant.
“That’s not true. I’ve had milk from here that was off twice in the last few weeks.”
The assistant straightened up and glared back. She hadn’t expected that. The old lady frowned at me, too worried about the whole business to feel grateful. I waited. Finally the assistant backed down.
“I’ll see what we’ve got in the back.”
I nodded at the old lady, who was biting her lip as she watched the assistant march down the aisle towards the store area and wishing that she could just go home.
This was a single tiny incident, just one of many which explains why I was so glad to see those fridges out on the pavement. Small town supermarkets serve real people with real worries and real needs. They should never forget that. Slogans are not enough.
We have a big new Tesco in Filey, an aggressively signposted rectangular box sitting behind the bus station. It has already seen off the small local bakers that had been on the high street since the 1920’s and those shops which are left who are selling things that cost more than a pound are feeling the pinch. I only go into Tescos if they are selling something that I can’t get anywhere else in town. Filey is a small town and these things are noticed. I have even been known to carry a full bag of shopping round Tescos which has all been bought somewhere else. I have my principles and it’s also just a bit further to walk to get there which helps me stick to them.
This morning I didn’t need much, just some bacon and some vegetables for the pheasant casserole that I am cooking tonight. When I went into Adrian’s butchers I was greeted cheerfully. I asked if I could have four rashers of thick cut bacon, rashers not as thick as their bacon chops but thicker than their normal sliced bacon and a whole side of bacon was fetched out from the fridge at the back of the shop. Four rashers were carefully cut by hand from it and shown to me to make sure that they were all right. They were. Very much all right. We had a little chat about the casserole that they would be going into and the pheasant which I bought there the previous day and I went on my way.
Next stop the veg shop. Just potatoes and spring cabbage needed. I went to the back of the shop and chose my cabbage then had a look at the potatoes. The red skinned potatoes that I like if I am making mash were all bagged up in plastic bags and since I have to carry all my shopping back down a very long road I broke into a bag and got two large potatoes out. I have been told in the past that this is ok. The young woman who was serving gave me a look as she walked past to the till.
“We’ve started putting them in smaller bags so you don’t have to do that. The bags cost money.”
I was startled enough to respond.
“I don’t even want that many.”
She wasn’t happy.
“Or there are the loose ones.”
Now I wasn’t happy.
“But they’re not the same kind.”
She had made me nervous and my fingers fumbled as I tried to open the bag that I had got from the dispenser to put the two potatoes in. I was watched in silence. I thought she might be going to tell me that they were all potatoes, so what difference did it make, but she didn’t. The woman behind me in the queue at the till was frowning slightly now, she was either wishing that I would hurry up or thinking exactly the same as I was. I paid up. The spring cabbage and the two potatoes sat there on the counter. The young woman looked at me.
“Do you want a bag for those?”
“No thank you.”
I shook my head in disbelief and carried the potatoes and cabbage out under my arm.
If I had to place a bet on which of those two shops would still be there in a years time I think I know which one I would choose.
I was standing quietly in the veg shop queue waiting for the small talk to be done with when the old man who had just finished putting away his carrots and pears in his bag suddenly turned back in the doorway.
“I were accosted by four pakistanis this morning.”
There was a silence. The lady who runs the veg shop, who is also a local councillor, didn’t quite know what to say. She has her own, very successful, repertoire of pleasant things which she uses to make her customers feel welcome and any response she might make to this was sure to be well outside her comfort zone. On the other hand she had to say something. So she did.
“What happened then?”
The man pulled himself up to his full height. He had wanted to be asked. He probably read all sorts of things in the Daily Mail every day and now it was his turn for the limelight.
“They wound their car window down and shouted what do you think you’re looking at? I said not at you.”
His face settled into a mask of self righteous venom, remembering his ordeal.
“I know what I’d do wi’ ’em all.”
I knew what was coming next. It’s what always comes next.
“I’d send ’em all back home.”
The veg shop lady made some careful noises which might, or might not, have signalled agreement. She likes everybody and everybody likes her. Being well liked in a small town matters. He was a customer after all and there were others listening. The man strutted off, job done, leaving her holding a plastic bag in her hand helplessly that I didn’t need. He had managed to turn the fact that he had seen four Asian men in a car and glowered at them so nastily that they had felt threatened and responded to his aggression into a completely different scenario where they had “accosted” him. He had used the word accosted quite deliberately as bait, in order to get a reaction, so that he could spread some more of his bile. The fact that it is very difficult for someone to accost you when they are driving past slowly in a car (even if they had tried- which they didn’t) was totally irrelevant.
The queue moved forward and for a little while there was an embarrassed silence. That’s how this kind of nonsense grows, especially in a place where seeing a sari floating out in the wind on the beach is an event.
You can’t get a signal for a mobile in my local Morrisons and I tend to think that it isn’t by chance. A person could get lost in there and never come out, stuck in a time warp where they can’t decide which biscuits to buy. When I was in there today, in a coma induced by the fact that there were no pick and mix ciabatta rolls left, I realised that there was an elderly gentleman next to me. He was smart and bright eyed, with a neatly trimmed moustache and a shock of white hair which he had combed back neatly. He had dressed for the occasion in a tartan tie and a sheepskin jacket. He was having a day out among the aisles and he was looking at me curiously. So curiously in fact that I told him what was the matter.
“There are none of the bread rolls I like left.”
He looked at the empty plastic box where they would have been calmly.
“I don’t like any of the others.”
Last time I was in Morrisons there had been a bit of an incident in the bakery department which had ended in a very nice young man having to cheer me up and wish me a nice day. I didn’t want any more trouble. He smiled at me.
“You need to ask them. They will have some in the back, they always do.”
I didn’t want to ask them. I might have to talk to the woman who had sent me round to the other entrance to have my bread sliced because they had moved the machine “six months ago”. The nice young man might not be there to fend her off this time. The old gentleman (and he was most definitely a gentleman to his fingertips) thought that I was hesitating because I didn’t believe him.
“I know what goes on in here you see. I have come in here for a couple of hours every single day since my wife died in 1997, to fetch my bit of shopping, and I don’t miss much. My wife always did the shopping and I had a lot to learn. I know everything that goes on.”
I tried to work out how many hours in Morrisons two hours every day for over ten years would add up to. Too many.
“Thank you very much.”
I went over to ask them if they had any more rolls and they said that there would be some more in about ten minutes. I smiled at him and pushed my trolley listlessly back towards the salad section. I was trying to remember how many bananas there were left at home and how brown they were when I realised he had followed me. He was standing by my right shoulder looking anxious.
“Excuse me. They said that they were bringing some out for you.”
I tried not to look irritated. He meant well.
“Yes, but they said it would be in ten minutes.”
He shook his head and held his basket in front of him defensively.
“They will have put some out for you.”
He walked away, still shaking his head. In the distance I could just about see that the empty plastic box had been filled with ciabatta rolls. They were only just baked through. I expect he knew that as well.
The old man is right at the back of the shop, looking out from under his flat cap and using his walker as a seat. His glasses have seen better days but he has put a collar and tie on. He has made an effort. His eyes are cloudy, but still curious and he isn’t missing much. He is having his morning out, resting among the cabbages and carrots. He has probably come to see Maureen. Maureen knows everybody by sight and most people by name. She looks after people so well when they buy their veg that a lot of people voted for her in the local elections and many of them popped their heads round the entrance of the shop afterwards to tell her so. She even smiles at visitors.
The old man is right in front of the vine tomatoes that I need and I wonder whether I can tell him to move. I don’t need to. He watches me get my plastic bag and follows my eyes as I stare at them, wondering how ripe they are and whether they are worth it. When he sees that I have made my decision he moves his walker to the right and watches carefully as I put them in the bag. “Good tomatoes them.” I nod and smile, and while I look for a few russett apples he pushes his way doggedly towards the till at the front of the shop. He has moved now, he might as well keep going. I line up behind him as he gives Maureen his two carrots and starts to talk to her. “I don’t make much effort these days like, now I’m on my own. Needs a woman for that sort of thing.” I wonder how long it is since he lost his particular woman, and whether he will cut his carrots in the same way that she used to when he gets home. Maureen smiles sadly. “I know just what you’re saying.” He talks on, waving his hands and sharing the small details of his morning which nobody has seen. Maureen nods, and shakes the carrier bag which she has waiting for me anxiously. She doesn’t want any of her customers upset. Finally he has finished. He can think of nothing more to say and the only thing left to do is hide the carrots in the bottom of the old shopping bag which is resting on the front basket of his walker. He doesn’t need it. I expect it is there because his wife used to use it and he doesn’t like leaving it behind. He gives Maureen, and the rest of the shop, a huge grin before he leaves. “What I reckon is, if you can get out of bed and you’re standing up you’re not doing so bad.”
I walk back home silently, humbled by the thought that there might come a time when buying a couple of carrots will have to count as my entertainment and glad that he is still brave enough to get out there and do it.