I wonder if the actor who recorded those dread words, “Unexpected item in bagging area” has ever had an unexpected item in her bagging area? If so, does she blush? Her voice, broadcasting your incompetence to everyone in the self-service queue, is a major contemporary irritant and a sign of failure; that voice of perpetual disappointment, tinged with mild surprise, like one of your eternally-let-down teachers.
I asked a young person recently, an inveterate user of the self-service checkout, if they didn’t get irritated by that nannying voice. “I turn it off,” he said, and he showed me the simple hack that means that on most self-service checkouts, you can mute the voice, and just listen to the beeps. The beeps are the thing, because a beep means that you’ve scanned the item successfully.
Self-service checkouts are the latest step in a slow revolution that started in the late 1940s with the arrival of self-service shops. Sainsbury’s were the first to go fully self-service in the UK. There’s a story of a customer so outraged that they threw a basket at one of the Sainsbury brothers and another of a judge’s wife who swore at him because he was forcing her to “be her own shop assistant”.
As this revolution has picked up speed, so consumers have become producers. We build our own furniture, become our own bank-tellers and airline check-in staff. When I was a student in the 1970s, I worked as a petrol-pump attendant; now I can’t remember the last time I saw such an exotic creature.
A rough calculation shows that this “consumption work” is worth about £5.4 billion a year to the British economy. Some companies pass these savings on to the customers, by means of reduced prices. Others pass them on to their shareholders in the form of increased profits.
It is gathering pace. Professor Steve Burt from the Institute for Retail Studies, based at the University of Stirling, told me that there are people being born today who will probably have no idea what we mean by a shop. Shops will become showrooms, but the actual buying will be entirely through our devices. Shops will be devoid of staff on the tills, and possibly they will be devoid of living, breathing customers too. Whether buying groceries or glad rags, we will all become internet shoppers. By the time the youngsters who love to self-scan are old enough to have kids, not only our high streets, but also our retail parks will have disappeared.
And, of course, these young people won’t care. It’s already young people who are happiest using the self- service aisle. Young people are increasingly used to dealing with the world through a screen.
I like having my shopping checked out for me, because I like a chat with whoever’s on the check- out. I’m looking for a particular kind of face-to- face human interaction; one that horrifies my daughters. “Why do you like talking to randomers?” they ask me. I don’t know. I just do.
Young people, lots of them, seem to be looking for different kinds of relationships. They don’t need a cheery word at the checkout, because their devices don’t just change shopping, they change the nature of human interaction. They are plugged in, at all times, to their social networks. These day-to-day transactions become much less important when your bestie has just msg-ed you to tell you your boyf is a cheating pig. When life is a permanent soap, who needs a chat about the price of washing powder?
Self-Sevice Nation airs on Tuesday 7th July at 16.00 on Radio 4