Saturday 20 December 2014

The supermarket sweep: I don't nick stuff, unlike you, probably...

Published 31/01/2014 | 02:30

The checkout desk at Superquinn in Dundalk ....one cashier on duty
Photo Tom Conachy....NO CREDIT PLEASE
The first time I saw a row of self-service tills I thought the staff had gone on strike

So, people are quite fond of pilfering stuff from supermarkets. And it's all the fault of those self-service tills that seem designed to relieve you of your money and your sanity in roughly equal measure.

This comes on the back of a survey conducted by Cambridge University's Institute of Criminology, which also points out that stealing from self-service tills is no different from hiding goods in a handbag and adds, helpfully, that: "The method of observation at a self-service till may be more of a temptation than being watched by someone."

Who wudda thunk it?

Of course, this survey, which estimates that people steal more than a billion quid's worth of stuff from self-service tills, was conducted in Britain and equivalent figures aren't available for here. But I'm going to take a wild leap and suggest that maybe the Irish do the same thing. And, as the supermarkets are big and mean and nasty, what does it matter if you slip a few items into your bag without scanning them? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. Not least your own self-respect.

The first time I saw a row of self-service tills I thought the staff had gone on strike and my initial bafflement has now been replaced by a stubborn, absurdly personal dislike of these things. In fact, when I'm ambling around my local supermarket, I tend to glare at these unoperated sentinels and growl at them which, I've been informed by their security staff, makes other shoppers nervous. But in a world where the smaller things in life are the greatest irritants, these bloody DIY pay ports are guaranteed to have even the mildest-mannered chap going completely postal as they try to scan that one last packet of chillies.

I've said it before – electronic devices can sense weakness or indecision and react accordingly. It's not a very rational theory, I'll admit. But a little part of me remains convinced that these blinking, implacable gizmos derive at least some of their power from bugging the shit out of people.

And when it comes to supermarket tills, such frustration must be born publicly, which only makes it worse.

In fact, being a bloke – you may have noticed from the picture, unless you thought I was just a remarkably unfortunate woman – means that we're meant to be adroit at dealing with these things. But we're not. And the only thing worse than doing a walk of shame is the stand of shame – where your till flashes and a disembodied, electronic voice barks out a warning that assistance is immediately required.

That means you stand there like a lemon for a few minutes while people look at you with either contempt or pity. All this before an 18-year-old girl on work experience trundles up and proceeds to treat you with the kind of exaggerated politeness and slightly-too-loud voice that I use when I'm asking my frail and nearly deaf Nana if she'd like to make me a cup of tea.

After the second or third time this happened I stood in gormless embarrassment and tried to convince the girl that the machine was obviously broken. It obviously wasn't. Even worse, I noticed that the care and consideration she had shown the first time was now replaced by a weary eye-rolling as I tried to joke that I wasn't actually stealing anything and if I did it wouldn't be toilet roll.

If I recall correctly, I was so mortified I think I tried to tell the young wan what I was cooking that night as she ran the items through the bar code, shuffling from foot to foot like some novice serial killer nervously trying to lure a victim back to his lair. And that's the thing that everybody hates about these bloody time-saving devices (that end up taking twice as long), you automatically feel guilty every time it summons the staff. And I'm not sure that being seen as a simpleton is worse than being a tea leaf. But then, I'm a scaredy-cat

I've only ever stolen one thing in my life. Don't get me wrong. I know that's still one thing too many but on a rap sheet of my moral failings, of which there are many, I can at least rest assured the kleptomania won't be on it.

On that occasion, I was 12 years old and I saw Hot Press in the shop near my school, stuck it under my jumper and legged it. I was then convulsed with a mixture of fear and guilt – but mostly fear – and returned the next day to secretly replace the misappropriated magazine. At this point, inevitably, I was caught returning the item I had successfully filched in the first place. In fairness, the shop owner assured me that he wouldn't call the cops and I would escape without a criminal record if I gave my word that I wouldn't do it again.

I did and I haven't.

If supermarkets really want to save money and time, why don't they just take all those staff, who spend their time running from till to till soothing apoplectic customers and give them a chair beside the till and let them do it for us? After all, they're the experts.

(In one of those twists of fate that everybody likes to finish a column with, I ended up working for Hot Press a few years later and told the editor about how he was responsible for my brief foray into crime. I joked that he had been getting his own back by stealing from me with the rates they paid. I laughed. He didn't. Oh well.)

Irish Independent

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