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Individuals of all economic strata are shedding their jobs, hometowns, and lifestyle to embrace a wider experience and a more meaningful existence.

Tazeen Ahmad

Tazeen AhmadTazeen Ahmad has been a reporter for both American television news and British TV for the past 12 years. She is a foreign correspondent for NBC News and an investigative reporter for the Channel 4 current affairs show called Dispatches, BBC 5 Live and on Radio 4 as well as the World Service. She was also a presenter of 60 Seconds and The 7 O'Clock News on BBC Three. Ahmad has also made a number of documentaries for the Channel 4 Dispatches programme which included investigations into sex gangs and human trafficking in the UK, features on the world of fashion, Women Only Jihad, Undercover Mother, Christmas Credit Crisis and The Truth About Beauty Creams as well as a feature on British schools among others. She has also reported for the BBC's Inside Out. She has also written for various newspapers and has also written her first book in August of 2009 named the Checkout Girl, which is her account of the six months she spent working 'undercover' as a actual checkout assistant in British supermarkets.

In her own words: "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 fellow 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 AhmadIn 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 her 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 her he has spent most of his 20s and 30s working in middle management and that he's far too qualified to be doing a menial job like this for £6.30 an hour. A few days later, Tazeen finds 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 her in bafflement. Ahmad is 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.

You have to scan 17 items per minute. 'If you don't maintain your IPM, we'll find out,' says her plain-speaking till trainer. All of her actions are accountable; the CCTV, electronic monitoring, assessments, clocking in and out, customer and colleague feedback. With cameras in every nook and cranny, there is no escape. As an investigative journalist who has worked for the BBC and Channel 4, she decided to take this job undercover to find out what it will teach her 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." says Ahmad.

"Every day, I serve up to 200 customers. Some people come in every day and spend £30, only 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."

Tazeen AhmadWhat quickly becomes apparent is that her '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. Then there is the man with the heavy bags under his eyes quietly purchasing breast pads and nappies for the new mother and her baby at home who is totally exhausted. The lonely middle-aged man with a penchant for red wine, who gets through a bottle just about every night (she knows this because he's back every couple of days for more). And then there are always 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."

Usually, she ends up having to call over her supervisor to remove the box for her, by which time the customer is usually flushing beetroot red. As he flees the store in embarrassment, she wants to tell him that she has already seen enough to be immune to the intimate items people buy. While moments like these are hilarious in hindsight, what strikes her as the days go by is just how desperately lonely so many of these 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 her 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 her feel she is 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, Ahmad wishes she could still accept cheques. Some of the older customers have such severe arthritis they hand her their purse and ask her to take their money out for them. And none of them come 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 her 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.

Tazeen AhmadAhmad also realizes that there is a fundamental difference between the customers coming to 'basket only' tills compared to those coming to the trolley ones. Baskets seem to attract men in the 30 to 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 she is too slow for them, they actually bellow to themselves like animals preparing for battle. When she needs 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, she is regularly shouted at. One day when she was at the end of her shift on the checkout - she tried to close her 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 she awaits 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: Ahmad has no idea about what. As she takes back her change, she turns to Ahmad and shouts in her face: 'You didn't say please or thank you once.' Tazeen is mortified, especially as she takes in the people behind her staring at her to see her reaction. Under normal circumstances, Ahmad would have a clever remark ready, but as a checkout girl - or COG - you're gagged - you can't fight back. Her heart was racing, she was humiliated and she feels like crying, but she has to fix a smile to her face and carry on serving. Ahmad would have loved to have a few minutes to compose herself, but the checkout girl has no time for recovery. Even though she's done live television, and interviewed difficult politicians for work, yet all of this feels far more stressful to her.

Tazeen AhmadHer book details her observations about the effects of the economy on peoples attitudes, behaviour and shopping habits. It's about the penny-pinching, the serious splurging and the incredible insight checkout girls have into our private lives and personal finances. Shopping at Marks & Spencer could no longer be justified by customers feeling the pinch of the economy. People were counting pennies like she'd never seen before and more and more people were telling her of friends who'd lost their jobs and were worried they might lose theirs. Some people even would quietly ask her if the supermarket was looking for more checkout staff. She also started to notice shopping lists in their hands or left discarded in their trolleys, while previously they had just wandered around the store picking up whatever they wanted. And there are very few of these customers who do not arrive at the checkout without a few bottles of wine in their basket. It probably increased the cost of their shopping by 25 percent, but they feel it's still cheaper to drink at home than going to a pub. Perhaps they're just trying to numb the pain.

Finally her last day comes in early May, and her last customer is the 230th person she had served that day. 'Congratulations, you are my last customer in this job... Ever' she tells the pretty blonde standing in front of her. 'I'm honoured,' replied the blonde.

Behind her are a mass of customers. 'I'm sorry, but I really have to close,' she says, not once, not twice but eight times. Everyone grunts. Everyone rolls their eyes. She closes her till and does her last cash-up. The next shift are gathered together, huddled over the schedules. Ahmad hands over her keys and the till captain takes them distractedly. She says good-bye and nobody hears her. As she walks out the big double doors she turns one last time to look at the checkouts. There is already another COG sitting in her chair - ready to begin her own remarkable lesson in life.

The Checkout Girl: My Life on the Supermarket Conveyor Belt by Tazeen Ahmad is published by The Friday Project (Harper Collins). To order a copy in the UK (p&p free) call 0845 155 0720 in the UK or see www.thecheckoutgirl.co.uk

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www.thecheckoutgirl.co.uk



Tazeen Ahmad - NBC Television News

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Tazeen Ahmad
Experiences of Tazeen Ahmad when she went undercover and worked as a checkout girl at a British Supermarket during the onslaught of the economic crisis. Learn what that girl behind the counter is thinking as she rings up your groceries and smiles at you.
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