Next time you are in your local bookshop you may spot two books written by former supermarket checkout girls.
The Checkout Girl by Tazeen Ahmad is published by the imprint I run, The Friday Project. The author spent six months undercover in a branch of Sainsburys and has collected her experiences in a remarkable all-human-life-is-here account of what it is really like behind the till in a major supermarket. It is not quite what you would expect and the stories she tells range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious.
Anna Sam was a French checkout girl, working and blogging about it for eight years. Checkout: A Life on the Tills tells her story which is very different to Tazeen's but with many amusing and enlightening parallels.
I thought it would be fun to get Anna and Tazeen to interview each other. The results are below.
First up, Anna quizzes Tazeen.
TA: Hi there Anna. I wanted to give an insight into how British people were coping during the recession, observe people's shopping habits and their quirks and most importantly take a look at what life is really like inside a supermarket - taking the reader into a fascinating parallel world.
AS: Was your experience as a checkout girl as you expected or were there any major surprises?
TA: There were lots of surprises. I didn't realise I had walked onto the set of a great big riveting soap opera with friendships and love affairs and family dramas playing out on a daily basis. I also didn't expect to turn into an Agony Aunt for so many customers several times a day with them off-loading their shopping and their fascinating personal woes at the same time. I was also stumped by how difficult customers could be. By and large most customers were really friendly and easy-going but at least once a shift I'd get shouted at - I was horrified that people could be so rude and obnoxious and over the most insignificant of things for instance if I was having technical problems with the till, a dressing down was pretty much inevitable. It turned out to be a real slice of life, a window on the world, if you will.
AS: Do you think that attitudes towards checkout girls might improve in the future? In other words, will it be possible to raise the status of the checkout girl?
TA: I really hope both of our books will help change perceptions of Cogs (as I call checkout guys and girls) in some small way and make customers behave better at the tills. They are after all the cogs in the supersonic wheel of the supermarket - they keep it going. Cogs work hard and tirelessly and deserve some recognition for what they have to do for hours on end.
AS: And one more question, if you want or are able to answer it: In France there is a lot of discussion about whether automated checkout points will put paid to supermarket cashiers. What do UK employees and customers think?
TA: Certainly in the supermarket I was at checkout staff were really essential not just in terms of the function they fulfilled but also the customer service they provided. They ensured the customers who had been in the store had had a good enough experience to make them want to return. I've noticed the level of frustration that customers experience dealing with self service machines. I'd be very surprised if checkout assistants were replaced by them and think it would go down pretty badly with both supermarket staff and customers alike if the move was to take place here in the UK. Long live the Cog!
And now Tazeen interviews Anna.
TA: Whilst working at the supermarket I often felt like I had a role in a highly entertaining soap-opera - with the lovers tiffs, family dramas and the friendly banter I witnessed everyday amongst my colleagues and especially the customers. Was it the same for you?
AS: Exactly the same. I often likened life behind the tills to having a part in a play, because of the varied, incongruous, surprising and astonishing things I witnessed. Every day brought to light another facet of society. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to tell my till tales, since each incident reflects a different aspect of human behaviour and how we all interact.
TA: I worked at the supermarket just as the recession kicked in late last year and observed the penny pinching and money saving tactics British customers were employing. I put it down to the recession but I did find myself wondering - has it always been like this at the tills?
AS: Customers have been careful about how much they spend for some time now. Over the eight years I worked in a supermarket I noticed that customers became progressively more penny pinching. The economic crisis at the end of 2008 certainly accelerated this trend, but it was noticeable long before that. In my book I have a chapter on money-back guarantees, an important part of supermarket shopping in France for several years now.
TA: There was a real camaraderie amongst the supermarket staff especially at the checkouts - a sense that we were all in it together. At other times the managers and the supervisors were watching us with a disconcerting eagle eye ready to pounce if we put a foot wrong. I wondered if a French supermarket was any different?
AS: In most supermarkets there is, as you say, a real camaraderie amongst the cashiers. We all know what our colleagues have to put up, because we have all the same things to deal with. This draws us together and we help each other out whenever we can. The relationship with managers and supervisors depends really on what the managers are like. I have known some superb ones but also some who are only interested in their own advancement and pay no attention to the needs of their cashiers. The quality of the manager has a huge impact on the wellbeing of the cashiers. A good manager makes the working environment pleasant, but a bad one can make it very stressful.
Checkout: A Life on the Tills by Anna Sam is published by Gallic Books.
The Checkout Girl by Tazeen Ahmad is published by The Friday Project.
Both books are out now and should be available in all good bookshops but not, perhaps unsuprisingly, many supermarkets.