Shop talk

Where better to find out about the immediate impact of the recession on the average person than in a supermarket? Workingmums speaks to undercover reporter and working mum Tazeen Ahmad who has written a book about being a checkout girl.

Where better to find out about the immediate impact of the recession on the average person than in a supermarket? That’s what undercover reporter Tazeen Ahmad thought and set about finding a job as a check-out girl, or Cog.
Ahmad, who has worked for Dispatches on programmes like Undercover Mother, which exposed maternity services, searched and applied for a number of positions until she was accepted at Sainsbury’s. This was quite fortunate as Sainsbury’s has a big emphasis on customer service and talking to customers, perfect for a journalist trying to find out about the impact of the recession.
She was also a working mum with two young children so was able to test Sainsbury’s reputation as a flexible employer. She has written about her six-month stint as a Cog in “The Checkout Girl – my life on the supermarket conveyor belt”, which gives a day by day account of her evolution from trainee to experienced checkout girl.
When Ahmad came up with the idea for the book, the UK was not officially in recession. It was the beginning of autumn 2008. There was some speculation about the credit crunch turning into a recession. “One day I got a horrendous shopping bill,” says Ahmad. “I could see people were really feeling the credit crunch and it was hurting.” All the talk at that time was of how the financial situation was affecting big institutions and banks. “There was no talk of how it was filtering through to people on the ground,” says Ahmad.
She knew that the idea would not work on tv as faces would have to be obscured and doing it straight as a reporter would not give her the same access to people’s real opinions. “When you have a microphone with you, people don’t speak as frankly as they do to a checkout girl,” she says.
Publishers were tentatively interested, but not prepared to put their money where their mouth was so she went to a book agent. She was told she needed to take a risk and do the job for a couple of months then write up some chapters.
So she started work in November 2008 with no book deal, but two months later HarperCollins said yes. Ahmad says she could have got a job in any supermarket. The undercover element was not to expose Sainsbury’s. The main aim was to study the impact of the recession. Sometimes, she said talking to people made the time go more quickly, but she admits that at other times she was not in the mood. However, there was a lot of supervision from managers. She thinks, from talking to people, that the supervision and emphasis on customer service has increased in the last few years.???
Although she says it and other strategies that the supermarket has used, such as promoting its value brands, have worked, in that Sainsbury’s is getting some of its customers back, she thinks it is not always easy to do.
Some of the Cogs were very young and found it difficult to know what to say if they asked how a customer was and they burst intotears or said they had lost their job. “You have to have a certain degree of maturity and conversational skills,” said Ahmad. In the book, she recounts how one Cog had broken up from her boyfriend the day before and told all her customers how broken-hearted she was. She asked one male customer: “Why are you lot all such bastards?” As Ahmad commented, it was perhaps not appropriate, but it was high on entertainment value. Another, a convinced vegetarian, laid into customers buying meat.
Sometimes when managers were hanging around the Cogs had to force conversation out of reluctant customers. “It was like carrying out a tough interview with someone who is not giving you anything,” she says.
Despite this, Ahmad said she was surprised by how much British people opened up at the till. She had thought this was more of an American thing. “I was amazed how people opened up,” she says. She speculates that they were basically trapped at the till, had time on their hands and the Cog was asking them how they were. They felt they could offload almost anonymously and forget all about it.
However, some customers actually picked out particular Cogs and visited their tills regularly. Ahmad said some Cogs were really sought after and were really good at talking to people, a bit like agony aunts or “warm, cuddly mums”. “They were real landmarks in the supermarket,” she says. She was really proud when she got some regulars. “Some people would come in looking really down and you could send them off with a big smile and feel good about getting them to laugh,” she said.
Many of the Cogs were mums who had taken time out for their kids or had few qualifications, but lots of life experience, including patience and the ability to listen.
Others were students and she noticed a new, small but growing breed of Cog – professionals down on their luck.
As well as listening skills, the job entails having the skills of a class A diplomat. Customers often seem very demanding. They get irate if the Cogs close their tills while they are in the queue, even if their shift has ended. Ahmad recounts time and again how she has to work 15-20 minutes unpaid overtime because some of her managers do not relieve her in time for the end of her shift. Some customers are very hostile and publicly humiliate the Cogs. It’s a lot to take on just £6.50 an hour.
Ahmad has high praise for her manager, who was very approachable. She had to ask him about cutting down her shifts because her mother was finding it tiring looking after her children. She was given shorter shifts. She thinks many of the staff stay at the supermarket because it fits well around their lifestyle. “If they need time off for family reasons it tends not to be a problem. It is very family friendly,” she says. “I think they treated people pretty well.”
The store found out fairly soon after she left that she was a journalist, but, apart from making “tentative inquiries”, have not put her under pressure, she says. She adds that she would scribble notes every day while working there and then try to write them up at night, which was not always easy with two young children to get to bed and because the job itself was tiring.
She has told one of her colleagues about the book and hopes she will read it now it is published. Most of her colleagues on checkout were women. She says men, for some reason, didn’t like doing checkout, perhaps because they didn’t like talking to customers.
Ahmad says she only had two weeks to deliver the completed manuscript after she finished her six months at Sainsbury’s. “I felt it was very timely. I started working there when the recession was kicking in and the book is published just as some signs of recovery are being noted.”
She is now working on a BBC story about parents who cheat to get their children into the best school in their area. She says she tells very few people about undercover jobs she is working on. “I feel like an MI5 officer,” she says. “Some of my closest friends are journalists and journalists are great gossips. I can only tell a handful of people.”
She says her children didn’t know and never saw her in her uniform, but one time she was driving past Sainsbury’s and her son said ‘that’s where mummy works’. “I have no idea how he figured it out,” she says.
TheCheckout Girl by Tazeen Ahmad, published by HarperCollins, price £10.99.

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