/ Shopping

No more unexpected item in the bagging area

Tesco says it’s making its self-service checkouts ‘friendlier and more helpful’ – no more being told there’s an ‘unexpected item in bagging area’. But will the changes make you more likely to use them?

Many Which? Convo readers have strong feelings about ‘robo tills’ – more than 1,700 of you voted in our poll.

Some of you like their convenience, but many others voiced a range of problems. And one of the main ones, with 60% of the vote? Yes, you guessed it. As ‘Frustrated of Wealdstone’ put it:

‘Unexpected item in bagging. Arrgh!’

Simon H commented:

‘Regarding the self-service tills themselves, most are far too fussy (particularly in Tesco and Sainsburys), frequently complaining about unexpected items which then require staff intervention before you can continue.’

The ‘bagging’ phrase is one of six Tesco is replacing with others it hopes you’ll find friendlier. Will you be more likely to use the tills or do you feel, like Katharine:

‘They are an absolute pain and generally take far longer than a normal till even when there is a short queue.’

A new checkout voice – why not Victor Meldrew?

Also going is ‘that voice’ – the one that sounds like it’s telling you off. ‘Remove this item before continuing’. All right. Give me a chance. Some of you find it ‘smarmy’ and Tesco itself admits shoppers find the voice ‘shouty’ and ‘annoying’. So here’s the replacement:

I think they could have had a bit more fun with it. A soothing voice, such as Joanna Lumley’s, might make us feel a bit more relaxed as we hunt for the credit card or the right amount of change.

On the other hand, if they wanted a voice that sums up how many of us feel when we’re in the supermarket, Richard Wilson doing his Victor Meldrew would be perfect. Hearing that voice urging you to ‘come on, come on…there’s other people in this queue you know’ would make most of us hurry our items into the bagging area.

Or maybe stores should be looking north of the border? A survey of more than 400,000 British people published by Cambridge University this year claimed that Scots were the friendliest people in the UK. Although it also found that Londonders like me are the grumpiest. Which is rubbish.

Maybe a friendlier voice on the checkouts would encourage diehards such as Cactustom (and me) to start using them. As Cactustom says:

‘I find robo tills impersonal. I prefer a living breathing human to scan my shopping, help me with the bagging up if necessary and wish me good morning with a smile.’

Would Tesco’s changes make you more likely to start using self-service checkouts? Whose voice would you like to hear from the machine?


This was posted four days ago in the previous Conversation on this topic :

“I read today that Tesco is to reprogram its self-service checkouts to drop the nagging in the bagging area. The supermarket has said it was getting rid of six “unhelpful” phrases – including “unexpected item in the bagging area” – after feedback from customers. Apparently a new male voice will make self-service checkouts “friendlier, more helpful and less talkative”. So Sonia [who get Sonia nerves] is on the way out to be replaced by the mellifluous tones of a gentleman; perhaps Harold be his name.”

I think the Which? Conversations and the Poll must have made quite an impression on Tesco. It’s always good to see consumer power at work.


While we are in the bagging area, could we have a Conversation about the forthcoming regulations in England on charging for single-use plastic bags? I believe they come into force this October for retailers employing more than 250 staff who will have to charge 5p for each bag supplied. It will be interesting to read how other parts of the UK have dealt with it, how it affects delivery services, what happens at the self-service tills, whether the stores will increase the size of the bags supplied, and where the money raised will go.



The existing system of charging 5p per bag has been in place for some years in Wales. It seems to work well there and helps encourage the re-use of carrier bags.


The “more than 250 staff” requirement means that it will only apply to the large national chains . Many “Branded” corner shops and supermarkets are franchises and will not be covered.
This seems a ridiculous cop-out !


Yes, I presume the small shopkeepers association pressed for exemptions. W H Smith, B&Q and Homebase will be covered as well as department stores, PC World, Waterstones and presumably some of the clothing chains if the bags they use are regarded as ‘single-use’. I was wondering whether paper bags would be offered by some stores. Sainsbury’s and the old Safeway used to supply large strong brown-paper bags, as indeed Primark do today.

We have scores of ‘bags for life’ in odd cubby-holes around the house but we never seem to have the right sort in the right size when we arrive at the shops! I suppose we’ll get used to it and be better prepared in future. All our ‘one-trip’ plastic bags get saved and reused at least once but this is a worthwhile measure to reduce the amount of plastic waste and harm to wildlife and the environment.

Stephen Clayforth says:
3 August 2015

Having recently returned from a 3 week vacation in Orlando where, believe it or not, we visited a branch of Wal-Mart, we noticed that there were NO Self Service tills there and they quite blithely dispensed plastic carriers (in fact there is no facilities for supplying your own bag) to all. However we did notice that much more use was made of paper bags and/or paper wrapping of food items unlike our own Supermarkets.

Perhaps if our Supermarkets and local shops started using more natural methods of packaging products instead of their reliance upon plastic cartons, film wrap and cling film then we would not need to cut down on the use of plastic bags so much. After all it is not that many years ago we used to buy all our foodstuffs wrapped in brown paper and it worked well for years.

Also how much of the ‘convenience’ foods are wrapped in these plastic products and how much of these wrappers are actually recyclable? I have found that many products state on them that the wrapper is ‘currently not recyclable’. Also how many recyclable products are ACTUALLY recycled by the consumer and/or the retailer?


Paper bags are not as environmentally friendly as they may seem, unfortunately. On top of the raw materials and processing there is the complication that sufficient waterproofing to make them practical greatly interferes with their ability to be composted, and paper bags are not often reused.

Sadly, ‘Bags for life’ are not always reused much, if at all.


Paper bags are also heavier than plastic bags to transport and take up more space. Usually the handles on paper carrier bags of the sort once used by supermarkets are attached to the body of the bag by strong adhesives which retards decomposition. I do not think the paper bags used by Sainsbury’s and Safeway until the 1980’s were waterproofed at all so they would disintegrate if it was raining heavily or if they were stood down on a damp patch of pavement. The paper bags used by many fashion and shoe shops today are certainly waterproofed with a heavy lacquer finish [partly for design and appearance purposes] which must make them almost undegradable.


The history of degradable bags is full of confusion. I would not like to guess how much is misunderstanding and how much misrepresentation. Simply impregnating or coating bags with wax greatly impairs biodegradability. I suspect you are right about the lacquered bags and goodness knows what happens when they are fed into paper recycling.

There have been many proposed solutions to the widespread use of non-degradable plastic bags. Genuine biodegradable plastics that compost well are available but are either too expensive or have unsatisfactory properties. Knowing my interest, one of my research students proudly presented me with a bag from the Bahai Publishing Trust, bearing the message “This bag is photo-degradable”. I found it at the bottom of a filing cabinet recently,