What does it take to be crowned Checker of the Year? Steve Kilgallon is put behind the till and under the pump at the 74th annual competition to find out.
This story was first published on Stuff.
The stage is set. Five supermarket checkout terminals. Thirty household grocery items at each. Black beans in brine. Almond milk. Noodles. Baby wipes. A can of air freshener with a dodgy barcode. The recipe for a remarkably good night out.
Outsiders, says Heather Williamson, react with “absolute surprise” that she’s spending a wet Wednesday night at an evangelical church, dressed in a banana costume, watching people scan grocery items. “They don’t understand the point. They don’t understand how much fun it is.”
Foodstuffs’ Checker of the Year is a 74-year-old institution. Born as the Listing and Adding competition, inaugural winner Edna Harris of Mt Albert Four Square totted up 12 grocery items long-hand in just 31.6 seconds.
In 2022, elite New World and Pak’nSave cashiers will take about 50 seconds to scan their 30 items, while simultaneously maintaining pleasant conversation with the judges and coping with the unflinching gaze of a highly-engaged audience. “It is,” entrant Rishi Singh assures me, “a hell of a night”.
By the time the auditorium doors open to the contestants and their supporters, the foyer of the Victory Church in downtown Auckland has become a swarming mass of fancy dress costumes, themed on each store’s local identity.
Tonight is the Auckland North heat: logically, Hobsonville, close to Whenuapai airport, have come dressed as aircrew; Devonport, near the naval base, as sailors; Kumeu, in wine country, with trays of wine flutes. Less obviously, Silverdale are dressed as fruit and vegetables. Williamson, the banana, explains that this is because they’ve been judged to possess the best produce section.
This is one of the last of a series of regional competitions, and everyone tells me I’ve chosen a low-key, smaller one to visit; in Manukau last night, they had so many entrants they ran 19 heats (five operators in each) and the entire audience took to the stage for a dance-off.
But there’s no sign from the host, children’s television presenter Walter Neilands, that this is anything other than the party of your life. He bounds on stage to explain that tonight is a celebration “of you, and the incredible customer service you give in the front line of your stores every day, so give yourself a round of applause”.
The humble checkout operator has had a tough time in Covid. Among the audience tonight is a smiling Foodstuffs North Island chief executive Chris Quin, who tells the assembled: “The most important job is on the checkout.” Neilands is particularly enamoured of Quin: “What an awesome guy, very genuine,” he declares.
But the crowd, bathed in the corporate Kool-Aid, seem to love their boss too. Actually, they love everything. It’s very difficult not to be swept along in the genuine sense of joy. They’re stoked to be here, love their colleagues, love their bosses (judging by the enthusiastic support given to a special store managers heat), and love their supermarkets. “My store is absolutely amazing,” says one entrant.
It’s a raucous, barely-contained atmosphere befitting a rock concert. Then Neilands says: “This is it, this is the big moment”. A countdown clock appears, and when it strikes zero, absolute silence descends. The only noise is the gentle beeping of the tills and the muffled sound of five people simultaneously enquiring how someone’s day has been. About 70 seconds later, as the last operator steps from behind their till, the crowd erupts. It’s the same drill every time.
“As soon as you get on stage, you look at everyone and think ‘what have I got myself into?’” says contestant Corban Taylor. “But once you start scanning, your mind clears.”
He’s right. I can tell you that it’s petrifying. I can understand why one contestant departed the stage in tears.
I’ve persuaded the organisers to accept a late, novice entry, and having never operated a supermarket till before, receive a swift training session from the head judge, Gillian Clarke. The likeable Yorkshire expat has held that title for 16 years, and was a contestant for nine years before that (“I got top marks every year, never won it – probably not fast enough, I talk too much”).
“It’s a very skilful job,” she says. “And I would say it is very stressful. 99 percent of our customers are very good. But the odd one who will complain about wearing a mask or not being able to find something goes to the checkout, that’s where all the customers go to.”
She takes me through three practice sessions before deciding I am ready for the real thing. The challenge, I realise, is being able to split your concentration between scanning accurately and rapidly while making coherent conversation.
Competitors can score a potential 82 points – two of those bonus points, says Clarke, for someone who is “really outstanding… but they’ve got to be that special person we connect with.”
Two judges rate each contender. The first, the pretend customer, ticks a series of boxes on her iPad: have you made eye contact, have you smiled, did you essay a “pleasant statement” of introduction and farewell (“How’s ya day been?”), and whether you’ve remembered to ask them for a loyalty card, their method of payment, if they want a receipt, and, crucially, made a clear request for the correct payment, of $91.72.
“If the total is wrong, you get marked down,” warns Clarke. “You lose 26 points for that. That’s the killer. If you get that one wrong, you’re down the bottom of the pile.” I make a mental note not to do that.
Judge two wields a second iPad and is, well, more judgemental: is your hair neat, shoes appropriate, jewellery not too ostentatious, name badge correct, your body odour not “too strong and unpleasant”. Crucially, as many people tell me, they’re also watching to see if you “separate the smellies” (stuff like soap and detergent) into a separate pile from everything else.
Everyone who makes the final 10 will have collected maximum points; speed then becomes the tie-breaker.
Aware of this, the entrants from Pak’nSave Silverdale tell me they’ve held special training sessions to reduce their scan times: they say a good in-store scan rate is about 18 items a minute, but in training, they’ve been trying to scan the entire basket in just 38 seconds.
“Speed matters,” says Rishi Singh. “But not that much. It’s about a good interaction with the judge.”
His mate, Corban Taylor, says the trick is to riff off the grocery selection. Dog food? “What type of dog have you got?” The other, he says, is to listen. “Once you’ve asked that [opening] question, just listen, let them make the conversation, not you. Don’t over-think things.”
Among their other tactics has been some detective work: Taylor says they watched social media footage of other heats to determine what sort of items they can expect, and have correctly deduced that the majority of the items would be the Pam’s own label products.
Contestants here must manually input the barcode of one item, which has been deliberately doctored so it won’t scan. All Pam’s product barcodes have the same opening seven digits, which Singh and Taylor have memorised (if you’re competing next year, it might be handy to know those numbers are 941-5077).
I’m the last to go, in heat 10, after a series of play-offs punctuated by a version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire with questions about in-store giveaways and Pak’nSave slogans, and the obligatory dance-off, in which the winner is a man performing a duet with an inflatable shark.
Drawn in lane four, my back is to the other competitors, so I can’t see how fast they’re going. I’m dreading finishing way behind with everyone watching. “You’re doing fine,” says the judge when I ask for a time check. I remember to ask how her day has been, if she has a Clubcard, if she would like a receipt and how she would like to pay.
There’s a brief panic as I stab at the buttons to deliver a receipt, and I’m done. Only I’ve charged her just $88. The $3.72 discount costs me those 26 penalty points, and any chance of being feted on stage by Neilands. “You were very pleasant though, so that was nice,” consoles the judge. The other judge says I didn’t fail the body odour question, which is also reassuring.
Later, I’m told I clocked 65.03 seconds against an average time of 76.85, and came 41st of 47.
Taylor, meanwhile, comes second. Singh (unplaced) attributes that to his conversational abilities.
The overall winner is an overwhelmed Deven Sukha, from New World Devonport, who intends to drop his hours next year to train as a commercial airline pilot. He wins a computer monitor and a firm handshake from Chris Quin. The Black Eyed Peas pump over the stereo, and the stage is swarmed.
There’s no grand final (a disappointment; I probably would have gone). Instead, the overall winner will be chosen from a mystery shopper visit to their store in the next few weeks.
Is it going too far to say that looming, spectrally, over everyone here are those cursed self-checkout machines, which surely one day will spell the end of this unusual but rather brilliant night out?
“Do I think they will take over?” considers the banana-suited Williamson. “Yes I do. I think they [human operators] are definitely a dying breed. We should enjoy it while we can.”