You’ve all done it, you walk into a supermarket looking for something you desperately need. You look everywhere, high, low, near, far, premium, clearance, everywhere, and yet you still can’t find it. What are you to do? You know what you must do. You don’t want to, but you have to. You have to ask one of those dull faced, vacant eyed, feet dragging teenage auto-trons who are employed as staff. Swallowing your pride, you walk over, and, admitting to yourself that they do indeed know something you don’t, you ask them where the eggs are, not the battery, the free-range. Their expression barely changes, possibly a flash of irritation followed up by a covering smile as they steer you with omnipotent ease towards your lost product. Upon showing you where the product is they deliver the obligatory advertisement for the offer on aisle twelve and shuffle off towards the doors marked with words more powerful than “no entry”, “Staff only”. But who are the people behind the sulk? Who are these seemingly mindless drones that patrol the aisles and seem to know what the little numbers below the barcode mean? Who are they?

I was one

It all seems simple at first, you're sixteen, desperate for cash and the local supermarket is looking for employees. Not thinking twice you apply, two weeks later you receive a letter telling you there are no jobs available, four weeks after that you receive a phone call offering you an interview.

At sixteen an interview is not the terrifying experience it is later in life. If you don’t get the job, so what? It doesn’t matter. You turn up, wearing normal, casual clothes and ask to see the manager of the department who found your application form and couldn’t be bothered to read it, usually the checkouts, but sometimes the deli, or the bakery slip through. The manager turns up, s/he is brisk and straight to the point, s/he feels like a teacher and you’re a little annoyed. Comforting yourself with the thought of pay you press ahead with the interview. S/he asks you questions, you respond with improvised clever sounding answers, or a simple “I don’t really know.” You are handed a sheet of paper to fill in, the usual insurance and personality quiz, with one odd question, “do you bite your fingernails?” You look at the ragged ends of your fingers, and tick no. You hand the paper in and are told you should get the job. Your hours will be six until nine on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays, your pay is £4.50 an hour.

One week later you get the conformation letter offering you the job, your hours are six until nine on Mondays and Thursdaysand eleven until three on a Saturday, your pay will be £3.85 an hour. Also attached is an invitation to the induction on the following Saturday, you will be paid and you should be there at nine am.

The following Saturday you arrive at the supermarket, still reeling from the fact that there actually is a nine am on a Saturday, you ask at the front desk where you should go, they direct you through the staff only doors to the staff canteen where about ten other teenagers are waiting and chatting. For some reason you know none of them but they all know each other. Embarrassingly you are the last to arrive, and are somehow five minutes late. You sit down and a woman in her mid forties asks your name and hands you your badge with the instruction it must be worn at all times.

The induction proceeds, you are told your employee number, where to collect your pay slip from, and are taught the main values of the company, you are reminded you will be tested on this later and so should remember them. The values are often nauseating…”there’s one team, our team!”…. unfounded….”no-one tries harder for customers” or slightly strange “a smile goes a long way towards customer satisfaction”. You are also made to watch five or six training videos, each dealing with such advanced topics as “pushing cages”, “stacking shelves” and “talking to customers.” The basic advice is “don’t if you can help it” combined with “go out of your way to help people,” The films are filled with happy smiling employees, much unlike the ones seen in the actual stores. You find yourself expecting Troy McClure to walk in. (“hi I’m Troy McClure, you may remember me from such training videos as ‘how to flip a burger in ten easy steps’ and ‘spitting in food is bad’…”). After an entire day’s worth of company values and safety tips being shoved down your throat you begin to wonder if any clothes shops are short of mannequins.

The first day at work, all excited about your new job you stride in, your handbook in your pocket, your clock-in card in hand and your silly looking boater hat sitting on your head, somehow managing to be too small and too large at the same time.

You approach your department and are greeted by your line manager, s/he tells you that your work isn’t difficult but you have to get it done in time. S/he also tells you you are entitled to quarter of an hour’s unpaid break every four hours work you do (which you have to take, you still don't get payed if you don't). Finally you are shown what to do. Inevitably it is some variation on packing and stacking goods. After the manager leaves to go home you are on your own, your duties are completed in five minutes and you have nothing to do, you start wandering around the store, pretending to be busy, and that’s when it happens, a customer asks you where something is.

You panic, you have no idea, your eyes scan the signs, hoping one of them is labeled with the correct product, no such luck. You give up and, defeated, tell the customer to ask at customer services, where they will undoubtedly report your unhelpfulness. You spend the rest of the shift working out where things are so it doesn’t happen again.

The weeks go by, your duties increase, there comes a point where you are always busy doing something, customers become insects, you feel superior to them, when they ask you a question you respond in tones you think indicate your authority, you begin to see them as stupid, how can someone not know that there are more sausages on aisle twelve, or the Tiger Bread is different from a bloomer, suddenly you realise that they have no right to interrupt you when you are working hard to complete the task your fascist manager deemed appropriate for you. The hours drag by slower than you thought possible, but only when you’ve no deadlines to meet and no customers to serve, when you’ve got to get something done the customers need more help than ever and time moves twice as fast.

Gradually it happens, you become one of them. You learn that if you think about other things the time goes faster, you learn that if you get the job done, that’s enough, you learn that customers don’t complain if you don’t go out of your way to help them, and don’t complain if you don’t smile or talk. You learn that if you look unfriendly you are less likely to be disturbed. You also learn that despite the numerous warnings posted on every wall no-one cares what you look like, it’s expected, and it’s easier that way. Finally you realise that a trained monkey could do your job better but the pittance they pay you isn’t nearly enough for you to try harder.