Oliver Cross: I won’t be checking out your self-service tills

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Last week I called at a Tesco Express shop near Leeds University and caused a small stir by asking to pay at one of the tills.

The till area was unmanned and deserted, but the self-service payment machines were busy – it seemed that the customers, mostly students, either enjoyed playing at shops, or regarded the machines as a sort of work-experience exercise, or were worried that Tesco might not be making enough money and were therefore donating their labour to the company for free.

What they weren’t doing was saving time; the queue for the self-service machines was longer than the (non-existent) queue for the manned tills – except that, at a fairly busy time, the tills weren’t manned. Tesco is evidently running down its tills workforce, in the hope that eventually the only people paying for their shopping in the traditional way will be the very elderly and the feeble-minded.

Which explains why, when a till assistant was eventually found, he looked at me in an especially compassionate way – but the point is not that I don’t understand self-service tills, it’s that I don’t like them.

They destroy jobs and human interaction and they insult staff by telling them that, although they might strive to be well-motivated and do a good job, their bosses think their work could be done better by machines.

This devaluing of the workers, so that, for example, white-collar staff who could once talk to customers using their judgment and knowledge, now have to communicate through call centres and speak to a script, is not unconnected, I think, to the scandal of growing inequality in Britain.

If all tasks can be done by computer (which they can’t, but some employers would like to believe it so), it doesn’t seem quite so breathtakingly scandalous that chief executives of large corporations can make (‘earn’ isn’t quite the right word) 88 times the average pay of their staff.

Mind you, I think Tesco, Sainsbury and the rest could be caught out on the automated tills front. Their businesses rely on having lots of adequately-paid potential customers, and every time you sack a shop worker, you are also, in a sense, sacking a customer.

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