Daily Archives: Wednesday 20 February 2008

Curmudgeon complaint # 1

I think that when I grow up, I want to be a curmudgeon. I’m going to start practising now, with curmudgeonly complaints.

So, complaint Number One.

What is it with people who head into express checkout queues at the supermarket with more items than they are allowed? I’m not talking just one or two items more, but five or ten.

Pisses. Me. Off.

The whole point of the express queue is that people with just a few items, usually 10 or less, can get served faster, because they, and the people ahead of them in the queue, aren’t going to be held up behind someone with a huge trolley full of shopping. It’s incredibly helpful to be able to drop into the supermarket on the way home from work, grab a few items for dinner that evening, and get out again reasonably quickly. I suppose that supermarkets introduced them just so they could encourage people to use supermarkets instead of the corner store. The biggest advantage of the corner store is that it is usually a quick and easy visit; by using express checkout queues, supermarkets can encourage shoppers to believe that going to the supermarket instead of the corner store is a good option, even if you are getting just a few things.

The express checkout only works if people take it seriously, or at least seriously enough not to infringe the rules by more than one or two items. But so often, someone decides to flaunt the rules, and use the queue anyway. To be sure, the delay occasioned by someone buying 15 items rather than 10 is hardly significant, but the attitude sucks. The shopper-who-won’t-count says that nobody else in the queue matters, that she’s just going to do what she damn well pleases, that she doesn’t care about taking her turn, just so long as she gets her shopping done first. She treats the other people people in the express queue with disdain. And that’s what really pisses me off.

More than that, over time, if enough people break the limit on the number of items, then the whole point of the express queue will be lost. So what can be done about it?

You can try rebuking people who overload the express checkout. I have tried a couple of approaches – pointing out politely that they are over the limit, and have inconvenienced everyone else, and offering to help them count their goods, seeing that they clearly have trouble with elementary counting. Neither approach seems to work, alas. Whether I am polite or not, I usually get greeted with abuse in return. Unsurprising, I suppose – no one likes being confronted with their ill-behaviour in public. What does suprise me however, is how infrequently other people in the queue chime in to add their voices to the complaint, or even just to give a nod of encouragement. Surely I can’t be the only person in the whole world who gets annoyed, or even just a little irritated by the express checkout bludgers? Or maybe I’m just the only one who isn’t scared to raise her voice and make a fuss? Perhaps that is what the express checkout free riders rely on. They figure that they will get away with it, because everyone is far too polite to say anything. Well, I’m NOT.

Supermarket managers could ask checkout staff to police the number of items that people bring to the counter, but I don’t think that will be very effective. I can just imagine some polished woman, or middle aged man, monstering a young checkout chick, and putting all sorts of pressure on her, or him, so that no complaints are made. If you are a kid working in your local supermarket, say in a part time job after school, it can be very, very hard to face down a mature adult, especially if the adult is equipped with all the power regalia.

The supermarkets themselves really need to do something. They have an economic incentive not to let the express queues fall into disarray – if it becomes too time consuming to go to the supermarket, shoppers will choose their corner stores instead.

Supermarkets could simply charge people say, $1 for each item over the express queue limit. However, it seems that if you charge people something for infringing rules, then in a sense, they feel that they have bought the privilege of breaking the rule, so they just don’t feel bad about it any more, and don’t even make the effort to keep the rule. They simply pay for the service. The ‘Freakonomics’ childcare example is a case in point.

I favour express checkout computers being set with an item limit, which can’t be overridden. Once the limit is reached, the total is calculated, and the bill must be paid before the computer can be used again for the next customer. The express checkout bludger would have to go to the back of the queue and start again. This would deprive her of the commodity that she tried to take from everyone else, the commodity that the express checkouts are set up to sell, and the commodity that the shopper presumably values most herself – time. Not to mention a good dose of social embarrassment, discouraging her from doing it again.

In the meantime, next time you go to the express queue with fifteen items instead of the mandated twelve, I suggest you have a little look around first to make sure that I am not there, because I will offer to help you count. Loudly. So everyone can hear. I’m over the vague unease of making a fuss in public – and working hard on developing a thick skin. I will be delighted to get some practice at being a curmudgeon.

Feel free to add your own curmudgeonly complaints in comments.