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The land of the barking supermarket self-checkout machines

Returning home is always an interesting experience. Is Britain well-prepared for Brexit ahead? Pelle Neroth offers a few subjective observations after arriving from Europe.

Nothing much seems to have changed in England since last year except an expansion of click-and -collect and one or two new high-rises on the London skyline.

But what changes more profoundly is one’s perspectives based on residence abroad. The first two days allow you to view your country through the eyes of a foreigner. It’s the first visit post-Brexit and one feels not so much the returning son as the mother popping in to see whether the youth  embarking on his own journey is doing all right.

Britain is going to become a global service, innovation and manufacturing hub, a better place than it was shackled to Europe. That I understand is the National Mission promulgated from Downing Street.

So let’s see. Coming from hyper-efficient Scandinavia, Britain seems not very service-oriented or terribly efficient. Let me state my case. I got my first taste, checking in at Copenhagen airport at a check-in machine servicing a well regarded British-owned airline. It asks you to insert your passport in a certain way with the photograph facing in a certain direction. Multiple attempts failed to elicit a boarding pass and, pulse rising,  I was about to resign myself to the long check-in queue for the manned desk when I had a brainwave. I  disregarded the illustrated cartoon on the screen and inserted my (British, same as example used) passport in the other direction, head facing north.  It worked! Funnily enough, this didn’t happen when I flew a Norwegian airline from the same airport just weeks before, using the same kind of check-in machine. Why was there no quality control? This must have happened before. It gave a sloppy impression.  

Example 2.  Buying a coach ticket at the bus station machine at the most global of Heathrow’s five terminals, a place where millions of people annually get their first impression of British efficiency. I insert my credit card and scoop out the ticket from inside the space where tickets arrive, which is unusually deep. I scarcely notice the coiling of receipt papers inside this space and just take the top slip of paper that chugs out at me.  Stressed, I walk about 100 metres and cast a glance at the ticket, which I notice is not ticket but a receipt and not my receipt either as it refers to the different transaction to a different destination. I hasten back to the ticket machine and politely interrupt the customer using it.  I insert my hand into the slot and scoop out the handful of accumulated receipts from previous customers – and my actual ticket, printed on the same poor quality paper in the same format.  I could see what had happened. The accumulation of paper means that when the latest ticket/receipt combo is printed, it can feed forward instead the previous customer’s receipt if he hasn’t taken it, and leaves your own ticket inside the ticket arrival space.  Just a small thought: why don’t they redesign the space with a plate at angle so that both ticket/receipt are always fed out the whole way so you can’t make mistakes?

Example 3. Grown men in suits down pints at 11.45am on a weekday in a pub in Whitehall, nerve centre of the British government. They’re all overweight, boisterous, and such a sight is unthinkable in abstemious Scandinavia, where labour productivity is 30 per cent higher.

Example 4:  A beautiful, prosperous market town in southern England, disfigured by garbage sacks. Recycling awareness seems lower than in Scandinavia. The supermarket in the smart city centre is somewhat down-at-heel –  even though it’s one of the relatively upmarket big three chains.

What I can’t get over is the customer unfriendliness of the automatic checkout machines. It’s never quite clear where to put your bags and where to put your products and how to avoid the barking voice when you have done something wrong. So many products seem to need official approval that they have staff members on hand to key in their ID number to either cancel the transaction or give their approval to confirm the transaction. It hardly seems worth it, and the contrast to the Scandinavian system is an unflattering one. In Scandinavia you walk round with a hand-held scanner and mark up your purchases in the aisles.  When paying, you attach your scanner to a machine. It quietly tots up your purchases and you pay into the machine.  It’s all very quiet and efficient. No staff intervention is ever needed. And you don’t hear the constant chorus of  bossy computer voices –“please put your bag in the bagging area” - that you hear in this British supermarket.

I wondered why the system persisted. Profit margins in British retail are high and these machines are so incredibly customer unfriendly and so detrimental to the shopping atmosphere. Why don’t they just buy new ones? But then I had an inspiration. It was clearly a small Luddite staff revenge against automation of their jobs. That’s the Spitfire spirit, Britain, it will get you far!

But there are compensations. Everywhere British people are polite and the best pubs have an incredible atmosphere. One is, once again, reminded of the level of civilisation and history. (There is a lot of crap, too.) Not everything in life is about efficiency. Some other customer experiences have been all right.

 So that’s just a few biased, undoubtedly partial observations about a Britain poised on the verge of Brexit that have nothing to do with the standards of world-beating British companies in Cambridge or the City of London and may not relate to the perception of others, especially if they have just arrived in Britain from parts of the world that are less organised, and less prosperous, than Scandinavia.

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