Let’s hear it for hardworking customers

Emerging in the 1990s, one of the most vacuous phrases used by politicians is “hardworking families.” The brain-numbing emptiness of such clichés can usually be exposed by considering what the opposite might be. Is it lazy families? People who can’t get work? Millionaires cushioned by their wealth or tax avoidance/evasion? Or is it about making an effort to avoid being vaguely feckless?

The phrase is the Japanese knotwood of political press releases and it will take some eradication. I want to suggest a variation and highlight “hardworking customers.” The IT revolution offered us liberation from all sorts of drudgery, often living up to the promise, but when it comes to paying for goods and services new forms of enslavement have kicked in.

Some retailers have made self-service checkouts the norm, while retaining a minority of staffed tills. Some have made self-service checkouts obligatory but provide a customer assistant to help anyone experiencing difficulties. Last week I shared in a pantomime at our local branch of W H Smith as I tried to buy a newspaper. The passing assistant kindly helped me with a scanning operation and then vanished to do something more pressing, leaving me to pay. Unfortunately the machine insisted on giving me my money back. I hung around for 90 seconds and then absconded with my paper feeling not in the least guilty of shoplifting!

Many retailers proclaim the benefits of digital alternatives but they become discriminatory when they become compulsory rather than optional. In many parts of the country certain goods can only be obtained online from Amazon or relatively smaller competitors. It is still possible to buy a household shopping trolley but you will be fortunate indeed if you can find a shop to sell you it. The recent u-turn over the proposed closure of rail ticket offices may look like a victory for inclusivity but I suspect the issue will return once Conservative MPs are over the hurdle of defeat or re-election and the pressure from constituents feels less urgent.

I no longer respond to the ubiquitous multiple choice “Tell us how we did” invitation settling instead for “If I do not complain, you may assume that I believe that you have done what I paid you to do.”

There is more to this than some of us feeling excluded because we know the limitations of our IT skills and when systems break down we are not clear whether it is us or the organisation who is to blame. The sub-postmasters scandal is a salutary horror story. Cost-cutting in commerce or in government agencies (especially the outsourced variety) can be the enemy of efficiency and effectiveness. Productivity and economic success can actually be enhanced when transactions leave space for human interaction.

Capitalism, like patterns of ownership, employment, housing, and healthcare has developed in various ways in different countries and if we wish to become a fairer and more equal nation we must not lose sight of this. For me one of the highlights of the Bournemouth Conference was being sold (by the author) a copy of Daniel Chandler’s “Free and Equal” in which he carefully builds on the philosopher John Rawl ’s theory of justice to address our social, political and economic shortcomings in the UK. If you want to change this country while anchored in clear philosophical principles, it’s a must read (IMHO) !

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • I always presumed they intended the obverse of ‘hardworking families’ to be ‘lazy bastards’.

  • Barry Lofty 3rd Nov '23 - 10:30am

    Yes people should have the choice between self service and attended service but forgive me for doubting that there would be a price benefit for doing so?

  • Thomas Fowler 4th Nov '23 - 10:53am

    In a couple of stores, the self-service tills are very reluctant to tot up the coins and/or give the change back as if hoping I might put a bit extra in or forget that I had some money coming back. As these tills give realtime info to the head office I suspect some AI is monitoring how much dosh is rolling in and having a mild panic attack at the possibility of looming bankruptcy and trying to make as much as possible out of customers. If I give the machine a sudden smack it realises that I am no mug and coughs up the correct change.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Nov '23 - 11:35am

    @Mohammed Amin
    I find your comments somewhat simplistic.

    “If you don’t like self-service checkouts, you are free to shop elsewhere.”
    Depending on where you live you might not have much choice. Could it be you don’t get around very much?

    Personally, doing my main food shop in 2 places which have both self-service and attended checkouts – I’m deeply unimpressed with the self-service checkouts in both and now always go to an attended checkout – even if I have to queue a little. I’m not alone in queuing up at attended checkouts.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Nov '23 - 9:00am

    One (admittedly small) chain listening to its customers and reinstating checkots with humans:
    “A supermarket has become the first in the UK to go back to fully-staffed checkouts, axing almost all its self-service tills.”

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