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14 September 2022

Behind the Bradley Stoke Tesco self-service “boycott”

Are shoppers in south Gloucestershire really queuing to avoid new tills?

By Anoosh Chakelian

Bunches of bananas, loaves of bread, loo roll multi-packs, mineral water, flowers and milks semi, skimmed and whole are piled high in a long line of shopping trolleys. People wait, silent and resolute, in a queue that winds all the way back to the vegetable aisle.

This is the Tesco Extra in Bradley Stoke, near Bristol in south Gloucestershire. And, according to footage pinging around social media today, it is the scene of a quiet revolution.

The caption on the video, posted by a Twitter user with the handle @Shorty_88a, praises the shoppers for choosing to queue rather than using self-checkouts: “I want to applaud every soul who silently and quietly said NO in Bradley Stoke Tesco yesterday, who took the time to queue to be served and not be forced to the new self serve.”

Replies to the tweet praise the shoppers’ forbearance. “Well done those people for standing up for choice and jobs”; “Need more of this”; “Fantastic! I don’t ever use the self-serve, prefer to talk to a human being at the till”; “Bring back normal service and stop all this coerced cashless automated crap! Most of your customers hate it!”

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This is the Clubcard coup. The payment putsch. The manual mutiny. The unexpected fight-‘em in the bagging area. The storming of the Bas-till. (That’s enough – ed.) At least, that is what it appeared to be.

While as a nation we feel fondly for a Britain that will find any excuse to queue and grumble, or nod sagely at evidence of a conservative country fearful of change, this footage is not what it seems. There was an electrical fault at the time the shoppers were filmed, which meant there was only one manned till open for a few hours on Monday morning. This caused a long queue to form.

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A Tesco spokesperson said: “We apologise that some customers at our Bradley Stoke Extra store had to wait a little longer than normal to check out on Monday morning. This was due to a technical fault that has now been fixed. Our colleagues worked hard to keep the queues down and help customers and we’re sorry for any inconvenience caused.”

I’ve contacted the Twitter user who posted the video on 13 September, but have yet to hear to back. Other clips posted from the same account, however, suggest a tendency towards conspiracy-theory minded content. It is possible that a radical stance against self-checkouts stems from a conspiracy theory about governments trying to force us into a “cashless society” so as to control us, which had a resurgence online during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to an insider at a major supermarket, the apparent inspiration for the video “sounds like that conspiracy theory to me”.

There is a Oxo granule of truth to the caption, however. I understand that at the Bradley Stoke store new self-checkout tills, which were installed this month, were in operation at this point and some shoppers were indeed choosing to wait for the manned tills. But the likelihood is that most of these would have been people doing big shops, which are perceived to be easier to process at a manned till despite the newer self-checkouts being more trolley friendly, and older customers. Automated tills put off about a quarter of elderly people from going shopping, as a recent survey revealed.

And there is a reason why the video appeared to resonate with Twitter users. Often when new self-service checkouts are introduced by supermarkets there is a backlash. When Tesco announced its new machines for the Bradley Stoke Extra store, it felt the need to reassure locals via the local press that they would not be replacing staff. (Overall data on automation causing supermarket job losses is not clear-cut, however. The technology tends to impact the dispersal of labour rather than the number of employees, but evidence is difficult to separate from general shifts in retail and the high street.)

At the time of writing, about 236,000 people had signed a petition calling on Tesco to “Stop The Replacement of People by Machines”. The petition was created by Pat McCarthy, a member of the Unite trade union and a pensioner who volunteers to help people with disabilities. Her arguments include the importance of human connection for people who live on their own and the physical difficulty for some of using self-checkouts.

She also mentions shoppers who don’t have credit cards, or would prefer to use cash (some self-checkout machines only take cards). This is a serious issue during a cost-of-living crisis, when people are using cash more often because it makes it easier to budget and avoid overdrafts. Britons are taking much more money out of cash machines this year – 18 per cent more in August than the same month last year, according to the Post Office. The video of the Bradley Stoke queue may have tapped into the anxiety of those of us who feel more comfortable paying in cash at the moment.

With inflation predicted to reach 13 per cent, the UK already has the highest inflation rate of the G7. The revolt of the retail refuseniks may not have quite materialised, but food shopping this winter is going to feel a lot worse for Brits no matter the till.

[See also: How can the new Met commissioner possibly hope to restore trust?]

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