Supermarkets Revisited: The Locomotive, Sky, Sainsbury’s, Self-Checkout and Plastic Bags

I commented a few days ago on the Cambridge Supermarket Wars and later on my own shopping habits. Since then the battle has intensified on the Mill Road front, and a fundamental change has been made to the shopping environment!

First, the bad news. Sadly, the Locomotive on Mill Road is up for sale. The physical reminder of those karaoke nights may soon be no more.

But the good news is that a new convenience store could open on the Locomotive site.

But the other bad news is that (as usual) the politicians are meddling. According to the Cambridge Evening News report:

“…there were calls yesterday for [The Locomotive] to be retained as [a] community pub…

Cambridge city councillor Ben Bradnack, who represents the Petersfield ward in which The Locomotive lies, said: ‘We already have two convenience stores on this side of the Mill Road bridge and they must be finding it difficult anyway.

‘I am not in favour of pubs closing in principle and these stores are for the daytime economy when we really need to think about the nighttime economy.’ “

I’m as concerned as anyone about the loss of our traditional watering-holes. This is often put down to a change in our habits – we drink more at home. But why? We are such social creatures, after all. The reasons are undoubtedly complex, but what surprises me is that Sky TV’s subscription policy is so rarely mentioned as a problem for smaller pubs. We now take it for granted that live televised sport is the right accompaniment for a beer (pork scratchings out, English Premier League in). Smaller pubs tell me that they can’t afford a Sky TV subscription. Custom is drifting away to larger pubs, or, since large crammed bars are not everyone’s cup of tea, people are simply staying at home.

It should not be up to the Council to decide whether the Locomotive site should become a store or whether it should reopen under new management as a pub. At the end of the day, someone has to decide that it is worth investing their money in a business on the site. That’s the system.

And, as I’ve argued before, it is not sensible for the Council to decide how many supermarkets we need. Far better to provide people with a choice. No-one is forced to shop at the Mill Road Tesco. Nor would they be at a new convenience store on the Locomotive site.

The dangers of pretending it is possible to all agree whether or not a Tesco store should be allowed on Mill Road is well illustrated by the emotions that have now been unleashed. Apparently, a pro-Tesco campaigner has been attacked. In front of the local MP!

How local councils (I’m sure Cambridge is not unique) have drifted into the sort of planning micromanagement we now see is a story that should be told. I suspect the problem is that local government has been so emasculated over the years that elected representatives are now trying too hard to find something to justify their own existence.

And, second, the really bad news. The reason I am revisiting the food shopping topic today is that Sainsbury’s have messed with their operation. To my horror, I found yesterday that they have only gone and replaced the multi-queue tills with a self-checkout system.

Remember, as someone following a life-style I thought society was trying to encourage, that is, not running a car, I have little choice as to where I buy my groceries.

I’m especially vulnerable, because Sainsbury’s is a de facto monopoly. They’d therefore have to screw-up big-time before enough customers took their business elsewhere for them to realise they’d made mistakes.

Today was fairly quiet in Sainsbury’s, I presume because the students are away. I dread to think how long the queues will get when they return.

In principle I support the idea of self-checkout. It will eventually reduce the amount of work that has to be done by society as a whole, moving us one step closer to a utopian world of leisure. But the technology is not yet customer-ready.

I noticed yesterday that Sainsbury’s staff were already running around between customers struggling with the new check-out machines. I dread to think how long the queues will be when the students return. Especially as staff approval will be necessary whenever anyone buys alcohol. Some of the students look quite young so we’ll all have to wait while they produce their id. When I was about 12 one of my mates was in the local paper after having had his stomach pumped to remove the whisky from another friend’s father’s drinks cabinet (hey, why wasn’t I invited?). But now we seem to think we’ll keep kids off alcohol by putting the onus on shop-keepers. They can get in serious trouble if they sell liquor to minors.

Obviously Sainsbury’s need to change the system elsewhere in their store. I’ll check sometime, but I didn’t notice that they’d done anything to anticipate this problem. The “obvious” thing to do is to monitor cutsomers’ ages on entrance to the booze section of the store. This would make their wine offers near the entrance to the store rather problematic, but then they should have thought all this through before they brought the new machines in.

Similarly, the delays at the checkout caused by the need to weigh fruit and veg could easily be avoided by having this done in the fruit and veg section. As is the case in many other countries. You simply print out a label with a bar-code which is later scanned at the checkout.

But my really big issue with the automatic checkout system (which is identical to that I’ve used a few times at Asda) is that it (moreorless) forces you to take disposable plastic bags. Yeap, the bags for life system – for which you even get an extra Nectar point on each use – is out the window. That campaign a year or two ago to use fewer plastic bags is clearly no longer a priority. Now, I don’t think cutting out plastic bags in itself is going to save the planet, but I abhor waste. If I end up bringing home plastic bags I refuse to throw them out – they’re bound to come in useful, I think – so they pile up in the corner. I am psychologically incapable of using the new checkout process.

And the reason Sainsbury’s force you to use new plastic bags? Well, it’s because they are dispensed over a weighing panel. And why do you have to weigh all items? Because they don’t trust you, that’s why. They reckon that people would deliberately or accidentally slip a few unscanned items into their bag if they didn’t have the weighing check.

You can skip weighing on the screen, but you have to do this for every item. As the queue builds up behind you. And (at least when I tried it at Asda) after you’ve skipped a few items the machine makes you wait for a member of staff to check your not a thief. You could put all the items in disposable bags, I suppose, and take them out again after completing the transaction. But then you’d look like a complete nutter.

There is a way round this problem though. We could achieve a nirvana of efficient self-checkout and reusable shopping bags. What Sainsbury’s could do is put RFID tags rather than – or perhaps as well as – barcodes on their products. These can be detected within, say, a metre (depending on the set-up). As a first step, Sainsbury’s could tell when you had put a tagged item into your bag without scanning it. Heck, they could even detect you leaving the store with an item you hadn’t paid for. Ultimately, though, you could simply pass your bag in front of an RFID reader and it would register everything.

I really resent being inconvenienced by the introduction to the busiest Sainsbury’s in the country of a system that isn’t the finished article. Especially when I have no alternative supermarket to go to.