Unexpected human at the till: cashiers are making a comeback | Yvonne Roberts

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During the pandemic, the heroes of the hour in my London neighbourhood were, without doubt, the women staffing the Tesco tills, smiling behind masks, keeping distanced trolleys flowing, firmly rationing the eggs and loo rolls while being hugely generous with their chat, concern, humour and calm; a tonic in hard times. But once the masks were officially binned, and we moved back into “normal” times, the human drought began.

A small but growing squadron of temperamental, over-sensitive self-checkouts were installed, and they show little mercy. The result is a rising tide of frustration, impatience and solitary seething, as attempting to fill a shopping bag is torpedoed by an endless stream of commands, rejections and refusals, while there’s rarely anyone who lives and breathes to certify that you are old enough to buy booze and have a little joke that you can’t possibly be 21.

A research study should surely be conducted into post-traumatic self-checkout syndrome and to investigate how many potentially life-shortening diseases such regular encounters incur. Now, finally, Booths, a family-run, upmarket, northern supermarket chain, has announced it is reversing this dehumanising trend. “We’re not great fans of self-checkouts,” Nigel Murray, managing director of Booths, told The Grocer. “We pride ourselves on great customer service and you can’t do that through a robot.”

My daughter, in her 20s, lives next door to a Booths (and probably would prefer a robot). She tells me another reason for the switch may also be that at her store, faced with a long queue for the self-service checkouts, temptingly positioned near the front door, some customers and their items have opted to bypass the bagging area entirely.

Even a limited engagement with another human being a couple of times a day can help to reduce the curse of modern life, namely isolation. A condition intensified when any attempt to reach out is curtailed by lack of time, money, confidence and opportunity, such as shopping for necessities. Self-service checkouts raise blood pressure and they don’t yet do small talk.

Loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Dr Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, earlier this year. It also increases the chances of heart disease, dementia, stroke and depression. Or, to put it another way, everything positive begins with the quality of the relationships in our lives. When community networks were invested in and strengthened in Frome, Somerset, hospital admissions went down by 15%. Kindness counts.

Last month, David Robinson gave a lecture at the London School of Economics, explaining the Relationships Project that he cofounded three years ago. It works with organisations, academics and the public to act as a catalyst to rebuild networks and remind us that, when sustained positive relationships are put first – “humanise, not customise” – the soul of the system alters for the greater good.

Robinson is also the cofounder of Community Links, which has worked with London’s East End community for over 40 years, supporting people to help themselves by helping each other. As the late chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks said in 2020: “We are not machines.”

Yvonne Roberts is an Observer columnist

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