Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fresh But Not Quite So Easy

About a year ago they knocked down our local butchers shop. Not just any old butchers, but the place where Julia Childs used to buy her meat. In its place they built a supermarket, but what could have just added insult to injury, actually turned out to be the silver lining to yet another metaphor.

The store in question was Fresh and Easy - not just a supermarket but a British-based supermarket, owned by none other than Tesco. Be still my beating heart. We waited a couple of days to try it out, so we didn't seem too American and keen, and here we are marveling at the 'British Foods' section. All 10 square feet of it.

Wow! Branston Pickle, and only four blocks from our house!

I was so excited. I love my old mainstay, Trader Joes, but they don't have the staples that you end up needing, like shampoo, tin foil, goldfish and laundry detergent. Fresh and Easy had the name brand stuff, but also, that English mainstay 'ready meals'. American pre-made meals tend to come in two varieties 'Hungryman' and 'diet', and both varieties are processed within an inch of their lives. Fresh and Easy comes with main meals, side dishes, salads etc, all pre-made but with minimal processing and very little rubbish added. I could see a future of decent meals of an evening. Variety. Nutrition. It was going to be fabulous.

Unfortunately Fresh and Easy mimics the British supermarket model in one other critical way - and that's the self service checkout. And that, well, that's causing a bit of a problem over here. The first time we went there were Fresh and Easy helpers everywhere, eager to educate people on the finer points of scanning their own groceries. I was game for the challenge, no technology can defeat me, and worked my way through scanning my four British food items. Two weeks later, and I'm there on a Friday afternoon with two exhausted children and an entire week's shop, queues a mile long and one incredibly harried looking checkout helper.

It was an unmitigated disaster. Every four items the belt would freeze as one or both of my girls would lean on the conveyor, activating the weight sensor and causing the machine to freak out that my scanned greek yogurt was actually 4lbs heavier than predicted and thus there was a *foreign object unscanned* so the lady would have to come and unfreeze the scanner, while simultaneously trying to help every single other customer having the same issue. Then the sheer volume of groceries started backing up, on to the conveyor, causing yet more error messages, then it wouldn't accept the sku code of my baked potatoes, then Lucy touched the sensor again and I'm glaring at her like 'so help me if you put a finger out of place again I will snap you like a twig', while the increasingly frazzled assistant is both bagging, re-setting the sensor and wishing she'd had the qualifications for a job at H&M instead. To cut the glacial atmosphere I joked "wow, it's not exactly family friendly this system is it?" as Lucy dumps a pile of bananas on the conveyor without scanning them first - oh the horror!!! and the computer beeps frantically. And then the assistant glares at me and says "they brought it over from the UK to take away our hours" and I'm thinking "OK then! Trader Joes it is! They have stickers!"

This is how mad the Fresh and Easy clerk was at me - milk, olive oil and a ten pack of capri suns in one flimsy plastic bag. Do you think she was trying to tell me to bag my own groceries?


I will be back, for my clotted cream and Branston Pickle, but only when I'm buying a maximum of two items and only when I'm child free.

To be honest this is probably the way of the future, but to launch full throttle in to self-scanning (as your only option) in an American grocery culture where customers are not even bagging their own stuff is maybe too much of a great leap forward. This is still a customer service heavy culture. Self-scanning works for one item by not for a family-sized shop.

Still, the Thai green curry was very tasty though, and that bread for 98c wasn't bad either....

8 comments:

Expat mum said...

We have several stores and chains in Chicago where, although self-scanning isn't the only option, they sure make it more attractive by not having enough real people at the other check-outs. I am always sucked into the "oh, it won't be too bad" attitude, and then am left standing there, waiting for someone "of authority" to put in a code and unfreeze the damn scanner.
Mind you, we also did self-scanning in Tesco Express (I think) in Covent Garden and it was a bloody nightmare. Every single item I scanned caused the scanner to stop. They had twenty machines and one guy running up and down trying to deal with the malfunctions. Very stressful!

AliBlahBlah said...

Expat Mum - that's exactly what it was like, so stressful! Not what you need when you're already out with two small children tired from the pool and hopped up on ice cream. Although, admittedly, I may have had some influence on that part of the equation....

Rachel said...

Now I'm craving a cheese and pickle sandwich.

I have found that the secret of the self-checkout is to 1) go at odd hours, like 11 am or 8:30 pm, 2) press the "skip bagging" button for every item and just bag things directly to my cart.

Almost American said...

We have a self-scanning option at our local supermarket, although I think it's a little different to the one at Fresh & Easy - no weight sensor (tho there is a scale for goods that need to be weighed. With somewhat older children, I quite like it (most of the time.) One scans, the other bags and I supervise :-) All is good until the scanner refuses to recognise an item :-(

nappy valley girl said...

We have self scanning here and it seems to work quite well (although I probably wouldn't do it if I had the kids with me, as they'd want to 'help' all the time). Interested to hear about Fresh and Easy, I remember writing about Tesco launching that chain about 10 years ago and everyone wondering if it would take off.

Caroline said...

Self-scanning would never take off here, thank God. Nevertheless, I am now very much minded to get some Waitrose olives and some Tyrell's crisps while I'm out and about tomorrow.

Iota said...

Emma, 1983 - 1986.

Same college as Trish of blog "Mum's Gone To...", but didn't overlap with her.

Laura said...

Hmmm. One of these popped up in my neighborhood, but as a former union grocery checker (in college) I just can't make myself do it, intrigued though I may be. Now I know DEFINITELY not to go with my 2 1/2 year-old twins! I get most groceries from Target and Trader Joe's (both non-union!, and then I go to Ralph's for other stuff. Oh, and farmer's market on the weekend. Whew, no wonder I'm so tired!