It’s 9.45am on a rainy Friday morning and I buzz to be let into the staff entrance at the back of Asda’s Crawley store. It’s a grey, dank day, but my mood brightens once I step inside to be greeted by the beaming face of Tracey Wilson, the store’s events co-ordinator.
Ushering me into a side office, she hands me my distinctive green uniform for the day as well as my badge, inscribed with the legend ‘Asda, always happy to help’.
As my first point of contact with the 52,000 sq ft store, Wilson is certainly living up to the motto and I quickly learn she’s got good reason to be cheerful. Shortly after she greets me, general store manager Mike Jones tells her that her team has won Asda’s regional St Valentine’s Day challenge.
The competition involved all the stores in Asda’s Kent cluster. Wilson has just won the prize for planning the best store displays and events.
The cash will go towards a social event for all the store’s employees. It’s good news for a store that’s only been open 18 months, and for Wilson. It’s clear she’s chuffed to bits, but as I’m let loose on the front tills under the professional eye of veteran cashier Pam Chilvers, it seems Wilson’s isn’t the only smiling face.
In fact, in the course of my day, everyone is friendly and can’t do enough to help. And that’s probably just as well. Working on a till turns out to need more practice and skill than it first appears.
After a few minutes’ expert tutelage punching the buttons, my till (number 14 of 31) opens, customers start pouring through and there’s no holding back.
With Chilvers in the wings, I’m faced with juggling cash, Switch card and credit card purchases, including chip and PIN transactions. After a friendly greeting and an offer to pack their shopping, I launch into the nuts and bolts of scanning shoppers’ items. Even this process is far from simple. Some products are discounted and the scanners don’t always pick up the barcodes on their stickers, so numbers have to be put in manually. Then there’s the loose fruit and veg. I thank my lucky stars Chilvers is on hand to feed me the three-digit input codes for all these. There are far too many for me to remember in a few scant hours. The only number that becomes lodged in my brain is the code for broccoli. For some reason, the vegetable is very popular in Crawley.
But fruit and veg are not my only worries. I also have to take £1 off shopping bills for customers who have car parking tickets, as well as deducting money from purchases involving vouchers and Asda store cards.
One thing that encourages me as I frantically whisk purchases off the conveyer is that I’m doing nothing that shop floor managers are not also prepared to do. As official policy, all the managers do a stint on the main tills. During extremely busy periods, there are staff ‘rumbles’ when the call goes out to staff across the store for reinforcements on the front tills.
But that doesn’t happen this morning and after two hours, I let Chilvers take over my post, grateful for her patience with me.
Meanwhile I enjoy a change of scenery and move to the jewellery counter’s tills. The pace downshifts considerably. Lunchtime is approaching and the handful of customers I have to deal with are buying items from other areas of the store, not browsing for necklaces and rings.
After an hour, I’m ready for Wilson to treat me to the highlights of the staff canteen and I eagerly tuck into a hearty meal of bangers, chips and beans.
The respite is all too brief, however, and once I’m all fuelled up, it’s off to Asda’s George counter, where I’m working for the remainder of the day.
There’s a steady flow of shoppers and the all-woman team takes great delight in the amount of sexy underwear I’m having to scan in for St Valentine’s Day purchases.
Fortunately, my mind is sufficiently occupied by the till system for me to be too self-conscious. The challenge here is the number of refunds and returns I have to deal with.
It’s a humbling experience as Louise Bryant and Julia Hollens continually have to talk me through the process. I long for customers to just hand over hard currency in return for clothes, instead of wanting me to take refunds for returns and deduct them from further purchases.
However, they’re a patient bunch, which makes my life a lot easier. Interestingly, there’s a break in the routine when one shopper launches into a vocal complaint about the chip and PIN system. She doesn’t know her PIN. At the moment this is not a problem, but soon, everyone will have to use one for purchases and she’s indignant at what she sees as an infringement of her liberties.
I wonder how many times the staff have to handle shoppers like this.
They take it all in their stride and are very understanding. My admiration of their ability to handle people of all shapes and sizes increases by the minute and by the time my shift finally ends, I’m genuinely reluctant to leave.
Wilson jokes kindly that if I’m ever at a loose end one weekend, I’m always welcome to come in for a shift. And I’m half tempted to take her up on that offer.
Clutching my Asda badge as a souvenir, I leave with a renewed respect for store staff and a resolve to express that more clearly in future visits to my local supermarket.