It is not often that I review books on this blog, but every so often one comes along that makes such a big impact on you that you feel compelled to do so. Usually this is because the book in question tells a good story that resonates with you in a particular way, and I suppose that is true of this one, even though the book in question is non-fiction, for this book, entitled The Checkout Girl in many ways tells the story of my life, my life that is during the period that I too did this job.
Tazeen Ahmad is an Indian born British Muslim working as a television reporter and broadcaster and in 2009 published her first book entitled The Checkout Girl. This is an undercover expose of her time spent working on a frontline as a checkout girl (otherwise known as COG - a most fitting term, since these underpaid employees are indeed the COG's that keep everything, and not just the conveyer belt moving) in Sainsbury's. I too worked for Sainsbury's for 2 years between 2003 and 2005, at one of their larger branches in the southeast. Ahmad does not state which branch she worked in, and this does not matter, for the book is really about the people with whom she worked - this is their story, and as the book says, by the time who you have finished reading it, I can guarantee that you won't ever shop in the same way again. I certainly changed my own habits after I started working there, and like Ahmad, am thoroughly glad that I left.
The relentless grind of this job is enough to drag anyone down - contrary to popular opinion it is a skilled job that not everyone can do. One has to perfect the art of doing about ten things at once (this is the main reason why I suspect the majority of COG’s are women, for men are by tradition useless at multi-tasking), all the while engaging with the customer in what Sainsbury's refer to as a 'meaningful manner.' While it is true that if you stay in this job for any length of time, relationships can develop with customers, the majority of this banter is take it from me, far from meaningful, but enough to put most ordinary people to sleep.
As COG's every move you make is monitored, with hidden cameras everywhere. Those at the top instantly know if a COG has short changed customers, accepted an out of date coupon, forgotten someone's cash back, or heaven forbid, spoken back to a rude and argumentative customer, of which there are many. Their rudeness and arrogance is sometimes breath taking, treating you as little more than paid robots, and robots who are not that well paid at that. This is mirrored by the behaviour of the checkout supervisors - like Ahmad I know all about lack of bag packers, wonky chairs, unanswered call bells, and late reliefs. This for me was the greatest bugbear of all - the fact that if you as a COG are even one minute late for your shift, they deduct 15 minutes from your wages, yet if you are late out, which you are almost every day, you are not paid. Sainsbury's (and no doubt other supermarkets too) must be getting hours of unpaid labour from their COG's held captive at their checkouts, every day. Other staff after all, can simply leave the shop floor and go home, but not COG's who are completely at the mercy of late reliefs, forgetful supervisors and customers with huge trolleys who are unable to comprehend that a closing sign means just that.
These things may sound trivial to some, but when they happen repeatedly every single day, they begin to get more than a little wearing. Ahmad worked just 2 days a week, so you can imagine what it was like for me, working full time.
In the end I went stir crazy - I looked around at some of my colleagues who had been there so long that they were afraid to leave, and knew that if I didn't do something to rectify my own situation, I would end up institutionalised just like them. The day I gave my notice was the day they left me sitting on that checkout for over an hour calling to say I needed the toilet - that gave a whole new meaning to the term pissed off I can tell you, and I haven't looked back.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. I still work in the service sector, but in a job that offers more meaning than sitting at a moving conveyer belt watching food whizz by could ever offer. Reading this book has though made me think back to those days and remember all the reasons why I had to leave, and also I suppose evaluate how far I have come. When I worked at Sainsbury's all those years ago, I would not have dared stand up to the supervisors or the customers in the way that I should have, keeping stum until the anger and frustration boiled over. Not so now. I have learned to communicate properly and with confidence so that these little things do not become larger issues. I am glad that I have changed, and I thank Sainsbury's for the time I spent working there, but I am still glad that I escaped, as most of their customers are too by the time they have finished their shop. It may be stressful for them, but they are the lucky ones for they can take their custom elsewhere, for the COG’s it is not so easy during a recession, when jobs are scarce. Next time you go shopping then, spare a thought for the beleaguered cashier, remember that a few niceties go a long way, and there is no need to be rude, they are after all just like you, only human, and trying to do the best that they can in difficult and very trying circumstances.