August 2014 - I Hate Working In Retail


The 12 Types Of People You Meet In McDonald’s At 5am

McDonald’s in the early hours of the morning is a strange place. You will get all sorts of people in there, and it’s usually the busiest time of the day for the fast food restaurant. Predictably, most of the people have quite a lot of alcohol in their system, but there is also a few people in there who might have just finished a night shift, or might be about to start an early morning shift. So here are just some of the different people you might encounter as you queue up for and then eat the nicest Big Mac of your entire life.

The Security Guard

A staple of any fast food restaurant after a night out, he’s there to make sure none of the drunk people hurt themselves or anyone around them. Much like the men and women with the aftershaves and perfumes in the night club bathroom, drunk people insist on becoming their best friend, even though, predictably, this person has no interest in talking to any of them, and wants to finish their shift with as little trouble as possible.


The Loud Group Of Guys

Usually made up of about 5 or 6 guys who feel compelled to draw the attention of everyone in the restaurant, including the aforementioned security guard. They can usually be seen at the counter messing up each others orders, at the tables shouting at and slagging everyone else, or outside wrestling one another after the security guard has had enough and kicked them out.


The Food Fighters

The food fighters usually end up being the same group of lads that will eventually get kicked out by the security guard, using their chips as missiles against rival groups, with some unfortunate people getting caught in the cross fire as they make their way to the toilet.


The Messy Eater

It’s unclear whether this person is always a messy eater, or whether the alcohol is to blame, but either way they can usually be seen sitting at a table covered from head to toe in lettuce, ketchup and crumbs. And it’s a similar story for the table in front of them, the floor at their feet, and sometimes even the wall beside them.


The Feasters

These type of people will sometimes actually save their money, often not buying the last drink in the night club, just to buy an absolute mountain of food once they get there. They don’t usually eat a lot at any other time of the day, but McDonald’s at 5am is a special place where special things can happen. And one of these things just happens to be your friends ability to consume more chicken mcnuggets than would appear to be humanly possible.


The Guy/Girl Who Just Finished His Shift

Very easy to spot, this person is usually dressed in all black as they’ve probably just finished a shift as a cleaner or barman/woman in one of the night clubs that all of the drunk have just come from. But regardless of if they work in one of the bars, or restaurants, or wherever, they are always trying to make themselves look as small as possible, and usually get their food into them as quickly as possible before they’re hit by one of the chip missiles or god knows what else.


The Staff

Everyone is allowed to complain about any job that they have as long as they don’t overdo it. This is no more true than for McDonald’s employees that have the late night/early morning shift. Trying to understand drunk people’s orders, getting the right amount of money off them to pay for the meal, and cleaning up after them. It’s probably a little like working at a crèche. Although at a crèche you don’t have to tell any of the kids what time the breakfast menu starts at for the 435th time that night.


The Sleepers

Another type of person that the security guard isn’t a massive fan of, they can be seen sitting upright with a chip hanging out of their mouth and and a half eaten burger in their hand.


The Emotional Wrecks

They sit there weeping into their happy meal with their friend consoling them after they were rejected by the ‘love of their life’, or, even worse, they lost their phone. The happy meal is bought to try and cheer them up, but to no avail. Although happy meal toys are a very common souvenir from a night out, and are more fun when you’re drunk then they ever were as a child.


The Loners

Not only does this person not know where their friends are, they also have no means of contacting them because their phone is out of battery. It is also not uncommon for them not to have any money. They just seemed to have lost all hope, and are just resigned to sitting in McDonald’s. You might try and be a nice person and try and help them, but there’s really no point. They’re better off alone.


The People Too Drunk To Function

The only reason they’re in the place is to sit down somewhere without the risk of getting rained on, or mugged or something. Because there’s absolutely no way they’re able to get any food into them. Even though their friends might insist on buying them something and try to sober them up before they get into the taxi to reduce the risk of them getting sick.


The People Who Are Too Sober For This Shit

Usually left with the task of looking after the person who is too drunk to function, they sit there with a grumpy look on their face, as the only reason they’re there is because no one would get a taxi with them when they wanted to go home. If they had had their way, they would’ve been in bed an hour ago.


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Confessions of a checkout girl at Sainsbury’s: A portrait of modern Britain from the other side of the till

So here I am. Day One as a trainee Sainsbury’s checkout girl. My hair is tied back, I’m wearing my bright blue polyester polo shirt, my shoes are flat and sensible and I’ve got my orange name-badge on.

It’s November 2008, and we are headed for a full-blown recession. Across Britain, people are losing their jobs in droves, and already I can see the first signs of what is happening in the wider world.

I’d expected my colleagues to come from largely working-class backgrounds, to be students or housewives looking for a little extra cash. And most of them are.

Tazeen Ahmad

In the thick of it: Tazeen had to scan 17 items per minute. ‘If you don’t maintain your IPM, we’ll find out,’ she was told

But sitting next to me on the training course is a former City professional, who has lost his job and has been left with no option but to take any position he can get.

Edward tells me he has spent most of his 20s and 30s working in middle management – he’s far too qualified to be doing a menial job like this for £6.30 an hour.

A few days later, I find him wandering around the children’s clothing department with a woman’s top in his hands. ‘Edward, that’s a blouse, not a dress,’ I say, showing him the label. ‘It’s a size 12, not age 12.’ He looks at me in bafflement.

I’m already discovering that the checkout girl’s job may look straightforward, but it is not without its challenges – ones that will never have crossed the minds of the millions of shoppers who use supermarkets every year.

We have to scan 17 items per minute (IPM). ‘If you don’t maintain your IPM, we’ll find out,’ says our plain-speaking till trainer.

All our actions are accountable; CCTV, electronic monitoring, assessments, clocking in and out, customer and colleague feedback. With cameras in every nook and cranny, there is no escape.

I’m an investigative journalist who’s worked for the BBC and Channel 4, and decided to take this job undercover to find out what it will teach me about modern British life.

Two weeks after I start, I’m put on a till as a checkout girl – or COG. At first, I’m slow and make mistakes – but once I get over my nerves, I feel as high as a kite. Even at my fastest, however, I’m only averaging 13 items per minute.

Every day, I serve up to 200 customers. Some people come in every day and spend £30, buying just what they need for dinner that night.

Others spend hundreds of pounds a week. The most I will ever see go through the till on a single shop is £600 – and the woman in question tells me that is a weekly shop for her family of four.

What quickly becomes apparent is that my ’till-side’ view of every customer’s shopping is a privileged intrusion into their lives, and quickly lends itself to the worst kind of cod psychology.

Take the single woman in her 30s buying the one carrot, a single onion, minced beef, a giant bar of Dairy Milk and a glossy magazine. I can already see her night in with dinner-for-one followed by chocolate and Hello! for dessert.

The man with the heavy bags under his eyes quietly purchasing breast pads and nappies for the new mother and her baby at home is totally exhausted.

And the lonely middle-aged man with a penchant for red wine, who gets through a bottle just about every night (I know this because he’s back every couple of days for more).

And then there are the men buying condoms, which for some horrendous reason come in special security boxes that it’s my job to remove.

At least three times a day, I struggle to get the security box off while the purchaser stands in front of me, shifting anxiously on his feet, the rest of the queue smirking behind him.

Tazeen Ahmad

Embarrassing: Tazeen struggled to remove condoms from their security boxes – much to some customers’ amusement

Usually, I end up having to call over my supervisor to remove the box for me, by which point the customer is usually flushing beetroot red. As he flees the store in embarrassment, I want to tell him that already I’ve seen enough to be immune to the intimate items people buy.

While moments like that are hilarious in hindsight, what strikes me as the days go by is just how desperately lonely so many people are – how much they want to talk to someone, even a stranger on the checkout.

So many mothers with small children stop and talk to me about just about anything, just to be able to have adult conversation after what must be hours cooped up at home with a baby.

Then there are the elderly customers who make me feel I am probably the only person they’ve spoken to that day.

For the elderly in particular, the supermarket illustrates just what a big challenge modern life is becoming to them.

They struggle with the credit card pin pad and forget their numbers. Often, as they try for the second or third time, their hands tremble with nerves. In those moments, I wish we could still accept cheques.

Some of the older customers have such severe arthritis they hand me their purse and ask me to take their money out for them. And none of them comes in at the weekends. When I ask why, they simply tell me that the scale of the supermarket, the overwhelming choice and the crowds make it too frightening a place for them.

They tell me how much they hate trying to pack their goods up into bags, knowing that the people queuing behind them are cursing them for being slower.

I realise too that there is a fundamental difference between the customers coming to ‘basket only’ tills compared to the trolley ones.

Baskets seem to attract men in the 30-50 age group, who offer grunts rather than conversation – and only ever buy a couple of items – one of which is invariably a can of deodorant. And these are the people who treat me the worst.

If I am too slow for them, they actually bellow to themselves like animals preparing for battle. When I need help from a ’till captain’ to sort out a problem with the till machine, one charmer shouts from the back of the queue: ‘I only stood here because I thought it would be quicker.’

This is met by a rumble of approval from the other men waiting in line. One man even throws down his basket and storms off.

Even on the main tills, I am regularly shouted at. One day when I’m at the end of my shift on the checkout – I try to close my till only to be shouted at by a chic lady in her 50s. ‘No! You are not shutting your till. I don’t care if you want to go home – you are going to serve me.’

On another occasion, as I await a supervisor, a woman shouts from down the queue: ‘What’s the holdup?’ As she reaches me, she talks angrily to her companion in a foreign language: I have no idea about what.

As she takes back her change, she turns to me and shouts in my face: ‘You didn’t say please or thank you once.’

I’m mortified, especially as I take in the people behind her staring at me for my reaction. Under normal circumstances, I would have a clever remark ready, but as a checkout girl – or COG – you’re gagged – you can’t fight back.

My heart is racing, I’m humiliated and I feel like crying, but I have to fix a smile to my face and carry on serving.

Tazeem Ahmad

The sharp end: Tazeem had to smile through abuse dolled out by angry customers

I would love to have a few minutes to compose myself, but the checkout girl has no time for recovery. I’ve done live television, and interviewed difficult politicians for work, yet all of this feels far more stressful.

By Christmas, what is happening to the economy as a whole is beginning to show its face in the supermarket. The store itself is like a pantomime set, with elves, female Father Christmases and two-legged reindeer everywhere.

But customers aren’t completely embracing Christmas cheer, and are counting pennies likr I’ve seen before.

More and more people tell me they know of friends who’ve lost their jobs and they’re worried they might lose theirs. One customer says he usually shops at Marks & Spencer, but although he misses all his luxuries, he can’t justify paying those prices any more.

I begin to lose count of the number of customers who have stared aghast at their bills, or couples who bicker openly at the out over how much has been spent.

Some people even then quietly ask me if we are looking for checkout staff.

Everyone is trying to save money, so they’re keen to cash in their reward points and use any money off vouchers. Ingredients from Jamie Oliver’s ‘Feed the family for a fiver’ range are flying off the shelves too. All around the country I imagine families tucking into the same dinners, chosen simply because of their price.

I also start to notice shopping lists in people’s hands or left discarded on trolleys. Previously, they just wandered around the store picking up whatever took their fancy.

Now, in an attempt to save money, they are planning their meals in advance and getting only what they need. One man even comes through my till a few days after Christmas with reduced price crackers, a chicken roast, discounted Christmas wrapping paper and wine.

‘Are you celebrating Christmas late?’ I blurt out before I can help myself. ‘Tomorrow – seems a good way to save money,’ he replies sadly.

By January, a sea change has occurred. Everyone is now horrified by how much their shopping is costing them, and struggling to meet the costs.

People come through the till, their entire basket filled with red and white boxes: they are buying everything from the Sainsbury’s basics range, from biscuits and bread to mozzarella.

People are buying ready meals less often, opting to make their dinners from scratch, which is cheaper. At my till, countless customers comment that they can no longer afford to spend as much per month on food as they do on their mortgage.

I also notice a sudden surge in the number of bags of compost and packets of vegetable seeds being sold. Customers start telling me they are going to try growing their own vegetables, in their back gardens or even on their window ledges, in an effort to cut costs.

Nowhere is the effect of the credit crunch more noticeable than in the sale of home hair dye kits. When I started here, I would sell two to three a day. By February, I am selling more than 30 a day, mostly to ladies who clearly have heads of expensively highlighted hair. They happily admit that by doing it themselves they can save at least £50.

But despite the recession, people are still treating themselves. As Valentine’s Day arrives, couples buy mussels with butter cream, chocolate cheesecake and a bottle of wine. One chap also throws in flowers, a box of chocolates, Taste the Difference vegetables, ready-made salad and a pretty blouse. It costs him just over £30.

‘It’s my credit-crunch friendly Valentine’s night-in,’ he tells me. Amusingly, many men are actually buying their Valentine cards while their wife is in tow. One woman rolls her eyes and says, ‘How romantic!’ as she packs hers.

And there are very few customers who do not arrive at the checkout without a few bottles of wine in their basket. It probably increased the cost of their shop by 25 per cent, but they tell me it’s still cheaper to drink at home than go to the pub. Perhaps they’re just trying to numb the pain.

By April, my six months as a COG is drawing to a close. And as ever, whatever is happening in the country as a whole is reflected through my till.

In the first spell of hot weather, all the tills are covered with barbecues and bottles of Pimm’s. One couple tells me they are going to make pina coladas and have them in their back garden.

More recently, when swine flu is officially declared a pandemic, almost every customer immediately purchases bottles of antibacterial gel. I get some myself and find I’m slathering it over my hands every four or five customers.

Surely here, handling so much change, so many credit cards and with so many different people standing over me every day, I am at high risk of catching the virus.

My final day comes in early May, and my last customer is the 230th person I’ve served that day.

‘ Congratulations, you are my last customer in this job. Ever,’ I tell the pretty blonde standing in front of me. ‘I’m honoured,’ she replies.

Behind her are a mass of customers. ‘I’m sorry, but I really have to close,’ I say, not once, not twice but eight times. Everyone grunts. Everyone rolls their eyes.

I close my till, do my last cash-up. The next shift are gathered together, huddled over the schedules. I hand over my keys and the till captain takes them distractedly. I say good-bye. Nobody hears me.

As I walk out the big double doors I turn one last time to look at the checkouts. There is already another COG sitting in my chair – ready to begin her own remarkable lesson in life



101 Thoughts Every Server Has While Working A Shift

Flickr: dana_moos / Creative Commons

1. Ugh, OK, another shift.
2. Busy or slow, busy or slow? I’m getting a slow vibe.
3. I kind of hope it’s slow, even though I reeeeally need money. Is that terrible?
4. I shouldn’t have picked up this shift.
5. No, it’s cool! Get your head in the game! It’s going to be a great shift!
6. Who’s working with me today?
7. YESSS, perfect, Greg will totally be OK with me getting cut if it comes down to it.
8. I *will* get cut first, right? I wasn’t even scheduled today. This was a favor.
9. Ah! A table.
10. Wait, do I know today’s specials?
11. Shit shit shit shit.
12. I’ll just let them settle in a bit while I caaaasually take notes by the specials board.
13. They’re settling in… for a while.
14. Should I go over?
15. Have they looked at the menu?
16. I’m going over. Just to say hey!
17. OK I should not have gone over.
18. I mean, how long does it really take someone to pick out a drink, though?
19. Is it that crazy that I was just TRYING to do my JOB?
20. I’ll just wait over here.
21. Shuffle the silverware around so it looks like I’m doing something worthwhile.
22. *So bored, trying not to look bored.*
23. Shit, now they’re all giving me a death stare!
24. OK that was actually fine. They might just be people with default angry faces.
25. Is it too soon to go back over?
28. Now I’m just staring at this table like an actual psychopath.
29. “How’s that water” hahaha but like, really.
30. Maybe there’s some food to run.
31. Ugggggggggh it’s the hot chef today.
32. If I run food he’ll be like, “Wow, what a great server. And a great person? We should hang out.”
33. I’m going to ask a question about the special. Show some real initiative.
34. Hahaha WHOOPS the kitchen is a LOT busier than the front right now.
35. Yikes.
36. Back to my section.

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38. Shit shit shit OK let’s do this.
39. You got this, you got this, just get in the zone.
40. That first table is eating, good, great.
41. Yes, of course I can get you a side of ketchup, I just can’t make eye contact with any other tables while I do it.
42. Ah, well, the other table grabbed me. I’ll get the ketchup in a moment.
43. There is a spot in heaven reserved for people who know exactly what they want, order it in seconds, with no special requests. I could kiss this two-top.
44. Now I just need to get to the POS…
45. Aaaaand someone else has grabbed me. OK. New order, real quick, no biggie.
46. You’re allergic… to sugar? And you’re watching your salt intake?
47. Ketchup ketchup ketchup do not forget the ketchup.
48. Sure, I have time to go ask the kitchen which dishes have sugar in them.
49. Perfect. They will love that.
50. But they can wait while I put the other table’s order in.
51. Wait, we’re out of the skirt steak? Since when????
52. And why is that table looking at me as if I’ve killed their family?
54. OK OK what was I doing?
55. Order in. Sugar question at the kitchen. Run some food. Back to table. Go go go go.
56. How gross is it if I eat some of table 22’s leftover fries?
57. How gross is it, if none of my co-workers see me?
58. Oh, excellent, 25 just got sat. And they need a high chair.

Flickr: francescarter / Creative Commons

60. All right. Full section. Good! This is good. I’m in a good ~rhythm.~
61. I feel kind of like a dancer. Is that weird?
62. No! There’s an art to this! And I am an artist!
63. Man, you know, I really do love my job.
64. Drinks are in for table 25. No one needs anything at this immediate moment.
65. Look at everyone, eating, and laughing, and having a good time. We did that. I did that.
66. Wait, no, that table is definitely pissed about something.
67. Hahaha oh right, the ketchup table asked for more water like a half hour ago.
68. Welp, not getting a good tip from them. FAIR.
69. Is table 22 seriously tapping me on the back WHILE I’m clearing plates from table 23? Who does that?
70. Aaaaand there goes the salad dressing down my shirt.
71. I fucking hate this job.
72. OK, whew. Breathe.
73. Goodbye table 24! You were great! I’ll miss you!
74. Wait, 10% tip????
75. Akjbfkjbkasfjbsbdfbdgbdf.
76. Maybe there’ll be another rush.
77. Well, OK, maybe there won’t be another rush.
78. But at least I’ll get out early!
79. I’ll get a head start on my side work.
80. Don’t watch the clock, don’t watch the clock.

Flickr: dalbera / Creative Commons

81. I’m just gonna like… go smirk at the chef. Like, a “People, amirite?” look. He’ll get it.
82. He didn’t get it.
83. I’ll just wipe down these tables one more time.
84. Isn’t it weird that just an hour ago I was going out of my mind busy, and now I’m literally just standing here trying to remember all the words to the theme song of Three’s Company?
85. Ten more minutes, just tennnnnn more minutes.
86. How’s Greg doing? Maybe he’ll play some Never Have I Ever.
87. Wait is that a three-top coming in?
88. Don’t seat them in my section. DO NOT seat them in my section.
90. OK, try not to be mean. These are people too.
91. People… who … asked when we closed, found out it was in ten minutes, and decided to sit anyway.
92. People who are terrible.
93. Well at least it’s an easy enough order.
94. I’ll just keep cleaning around them.
95. And stare at them as they finish.
96. And figure out a good “Never Have I Ever” to get Greg out.
97. Or just stew here in my grumpiness.
98. And they’re gone! And they left a good tip. Now I feel like a dick.
99. Whatever, I’m done.
100. Clocking out.
101. Time to drink.

Flickr: intangible / Creative Commons

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