Friday, 26 July 2013

26/07/13 - Lost in the Supermarket

Supermarkets evolve, just like most other things. When I think back to my youthful Sainsbury’s days, tramping about the store in an oversized navy blue jacket with faded orange piping, I see them being set in something that’s basically very similar to the Sainsbury’s of today. But that’s just a quirk of human memory; everything we ever do exists at the zenith of what’s possible for mankind to conceive at that particular time, so you think of situations in the past being ‘modern’ because they were modern at the time. If that makes sense. Does it? Maybe. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a lot has changed in the world of supermarkets over the last dozen or so years. For example:

Reward Cards
…and Reward Vouchers. Back in the late-nineties, before the heady excitement of the Nectar card came to brighten our days with its pan-retail versatility, Sainsbury’s had their own proprietary reward card system, imaginatively named ‘Reward Card’. Much like today when the cashier at the till asks you for your Nectar card, back then we always had to ask people whether they had a Reward Card. And loyalty cards weren’t really a big deal then, so you’d end up having to explain what it was for over and over again. (This was marginally less annoying than when I had a summer job at Matalan, whereby it was necessary to irritate people at the counter by telling them that they weren’t allowed to buy anything unless they’d pointlessly signed up for a Matalan membership card; it was hard to argue that it was a necessary part of the retail experience, because I agreed with the customers. It was a bloody stupid system. The store lost so much business through people just dumping their towels/whatever on the counter and saying ‘fine, I’m going to a real shop’.)
The fun part was that once a customer had saved up 250 points, they were entitled to a £2.50 Reward Voucher. These lived in the cash till - in the £50 note section, which was never used because nobody pays for their groceries with fifties – and came in a sort of cheque-book form. There was no automation to the system, no way of saying ‘I can knock the points off your bill if you like’ – you’d hand over one of these cheque-style vouchers, which they’d then hand straight back to you for you to scan in and throw away.
All of this sounds a bit pointless, but the system did have one shining merit over the current Nectar setup – at least you could work out what the numbers meant. A £2.50 voucher is worth £2.50. What’s a thousand Nectar points worth? No-one bloody knows. And no-one at Nectar will tell you. ‘Ooh, it’s worth five percent off a week at Butlins, or you can combine it with a Nectar multiplier to reduce your Christmas grocery bill, or…’ oh, do piss off.

Jamming the doughnuts
I’d like to assume that things have moved on in the doughnut-jamming game, but who can say? Perhaps there’s a baker reading this who can clarify.
Weirdly, I associate jam doughnuts with al-Qaeda, because in the September of 2001 I was working in the bakery at Sainsbury’s in Whitstable – jamming doughnuts was one of the first things I did after the news of the 9/11 attack broke. It wasn’t the first thing I did, obviously. That would be a strange reaction to a terrorist act. I was wiring a stereo into a Peugeot 309 at the time; I switched on the radio to test it was working, and heard the breaking news. Then I sat down in front of the telly and watched the live news footage for about seven hours, just like everyone else did. But then I had to go to work.
Now, you may have noticed that every filled doughnut has an anus. This is a necessity of their construct. It would be impossible to suspend an amorphous blob of jam in the middle of an oven while an ovoid sphere of dough baked around it. No, you have to bake all of the doughnuts (seriously, Microsoft Word, if you keep autocorrecting ‘doughnut’ to ‘donut’ I’m going round to Bill Gates’ house to punch him in his fucking face) separately as blanks, then inject the jam in afterwards. At Sainsbury’s back in 2001, this was a manual process using a jamming machine, and you could only do two at a time. This is because, as a human, you have but two hands.
The machine was basically a huge hopper of jam, underneath which were two pointy horizontal nozzles; to the right, fixed to wall, was a button that you’d press with your elbow. Also, totally unnecessarily, there was a digital control panel to regulate the amount of jam you were squirting. In this instance, ‘2’ was the correct quantity. So, you’d take a doughnut in each hand, push them onto the nozzles, bash the button with your elbow, and a splodge of jam would ejaculate into the doughnuts’ anuses.
An important lesson to learn is that if you’re in the bakery doing this at 4am, tired and hungover, then Chris Baston (who also works in the bakery; you think he’s your friend, but he’s keen to prove otherwise) will change the settings on the machine. It won’t be set to ‘2’. It’ll be set to ‘99’. So you’ll end up standing there, both hands occupied with doughnut-holding, while the bloody machine spunks four or five litres of sticky, gloopy jam down your immobile arms and onto your shoes.
Being tired and hungover, having cleaned the sorry mess up, you’ll forget to press ‘2’ and then it’ll happen again, while Baston creases up with laughter, the fucker.
So yes, I’d hope that jamming technology at Sainsbury’s has moved on over these dozen years, largely because THERE’S NO FUCKING REASON FOR THE MACHINE TO GO AS HIGH AS 99. No doughnut in the world is that big.

Pick ‘n’ Mix
Pick ‘n’ mix is an inherently rank concept. No matter how keenly you enforce the ‘you must use a scoop’ rule, there will always be kids grabbing sweets with their bare hands, throwing them back in, and generally acting with a devil-may-care disregard for basic hygiene. They didn’t have to go through the tedious food safety training we did, the lucky little bastards. They knew nothing of Microban. Having witnessed this gross act countless times, my pick ‘n’ mix advice would be: stick to the wrapped sweets. Who knows how much toddler piss is sloshing around the fizzy cola bottle tray?
But that’s not what really bothers me about pick ‘n’ mix. I’m a massive hypocrite, I don’t take my own advice, and I’ll always gravitate toward the delicious cherry sweets and the gummi bears when I’m picking and mixing – everybody does, that’s the fun of it. No, the thing that bothers me is that there’s no order to it whatsoever.
You know how annoying it is when newsagents can’t order their magazines properly? For example, if there’s something you buy regularly, and it’s always in a different place on the racks, or there’s a current issue in one place and last month’s in another? That’s how I feel about pick ‘n’ mix. There’s no standardisation. The rule seems to be ‘if you can find a space, put sweets in it’. There are so many ways that the shop could choose to order them – by colour, texture, genre, weight, flavour, and so on – but this never happens. It used to infuriate me. I hated refilling the pick ‘n’ mix.
Also, I once stole a foil-wrapped chocolate with a gooey caramel centre. It was the last one in the tray, and I had a vital consignment of jelly beans to deploy, it was a necessary sacrifice. But I was incredibly nervous when I left the shop that night, fearful that someone had observed my despicable theft on the CCTV cameras, biding their time until I thought I was safe before pouncing and exposing me as the outrageous thief that I was. It still haunts me. Sainsbury’s, if you want that three pence or whatever it was back, you have only to ask. I won’t put up a fight. (Although if you’re in the mood for settling old scores, make sure you charge Baston for all that wasted jam too.)

The magazines
See above. Whoever used to do the magazines at Whitstable Sainsbury’s was not a logical thinker. Judging by the annoyingly haphazard magazine racks today at West Kensington Tesco (which seems like a random example, but is the one I always pop into on the way to the office, and something that now irritates me on a daily basis), this is just one of those universal constants. Supermarkets and magazines act as a papery retail-based metaphor for the broader absurdity of the cosmos.

Packing bags
The answer to the question ‘would you like any help packing your bags?’ should always be ‘no’. If you lack the skills required to put some shopping into a bag, you really shouldn’t be out in public by yourself. If you’re able to pack your shopping effectively but instead choose to stand there DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING while somebody you clearly consider to be several rungs below you on the social ladder does it for you, you are an arsehole.
If you say ‘yes’, one of two things will happen. Either the checkout operator will pack your groceries into bags as they scan them – a process that, logically, makes everything take much, much longer – or a separate person will be called over to pack your bags for you while you dick about with your phone, or (much worse) just lazily watch them.
Whitstable Sainsbury’s actually played a blinder with this one: the bag-packer was quite an elderly woman. Anyone who said ‘yes, pack my bags for me, you fucking peasant’ (OK, never in those words, but that’s always the tone – you know the type, they’ve got an Audi keyring and a Jack Wills shirt or a fucking diamond quilted jacket, they think deck shoes are acceptable even though they’re very much not on a boat, they’re wearing their Wayfarers indoors, fucking twats) would then be greeted by an affable old dear who hallooed them with a ‘hello deary’ and set about bagging the goods. It’s a tricky situation for the lazy shopper – do they just let an old woman pack their bags while they watch, or do they backtrack on their decision, effectively then a) giving the old lady a wasted journey and b) implying that it’d be OK for you, the waster on the checkout, to do it, as you’re even more worthless than an old biddy who might croak at any moment.
I used to judge those ‘yes, pack my bags’ people so harshly. Bloody Daily Mail-reading, over-privileged, xenophobic, Tory, homophobic, elitist, golfing, sailing, rah-rah wankers. ‘I shouldn’t have to pack my own shopping, my grandparents had a servant, we don’t do menial tasks in my family.’ Oh, fuck off and die in a ditch somewhere, you plummy cretins. I hope your house burns down and you lose all of your photographs.

Actually, things haven’t really changed that much, have they? As with so many facets of everyday life, some things evolve, but more stay the same; supermarkets are still baffling and annoying places. And if you feel that way as a consumer, you should try working there.

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