/ 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.

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, still intact because it has seen little light. The dialing code is 0572 rather than 01572 so I guess it dates from the early 90s or before. Photodegradable plastics won’t degrade in landfill, so that was not a good solution. We have had starch-filled plastics and other sham biodegradables for years. These disintegrate but contribute to the huge amount of tiny plastic particles in the environment, causing mayhem in our oceans.

Meanwhile back on topic, I found that there were no manned checkouts available at Tesco when I called in a 9.30 pm. At least I managed to relieve myself of most of a plastic bag full of 5, 10 and 20p coins, something I would not inflict on any checkout operator.

Sarah says:
9 August 2015

Paying 5p for plastic bags has been in operation in Northen Ireland for some time now and has reduced the amount of unsightly bags on streets and hedges the place looks much cleaner our 5p goes to the Environment Agency.
Most people have invested in “bags for life” which have proved more versatile and secure than their plastic rivals, and we are doing our bit for the environment.

As far as I know, two of the best supermarkets in England have never given away free carrier bags. I refer, of course, to Aldi and Lidl.

I found this system to be a pain in the rear end when we went to Wales. Even going to a fast food store involved paying for the bag in which you carry your food in.
I can see the reasoning though.

Harry says:
13 August 2015

The charge for bags in Northern Ireland is for all bags, not just plastic ones. I think the tax has reduced the numbers of plastic bags in our environment but charging for all bags is OTT!

When our supermarket started charging for plastic carriers some years ago we bought a few “bags for life” – rectangular hessian with substantial handles – and keep them in the car. They are easier to pack, much more comfortable to carry, stack better in the car and don’t fall over and discharge their contents in the kitchen. So I wouldn’t go back to plastic bags, free or not.

I avoid the self-service checkouts unless I have a few items and that is not likely to change. Even if they worked perfectly, they are not suitable when buying even a small trolley load of goods. The present arrangement of having both staffed checkouts and self-service ones seems to work well, though it annoys me that my local Tesco often closes all the staffed checkouts late in the evening.

I have hessian bags and ‘bags for life’. The hessian bags are only used for dry goods. Fresh meat should always be put in plastic bags because the outsides can be contaminated with juices containing harmful bacteria. Last year, the Food Standards Agency has published figures showing the extent of contamination of the outside of the bags used for supermarket chickens. To clean the inside of a ‘bag for life’ just turn it inside-out and wipe it with a small amount of bleach on a cloth.

I find the ‘self service’ checkouts a boon especially if you only have a few items. What I do find frustrating is that if you have a problem the member of staff that should attend to it is usually gossiping with either a colleague or a friend and you either have to wait for ages or go and interrupt them leaving your purchases unattended.

Also annoying is the machines insistence that item ‘be removed’ from the bagging area and then replaced or that it doesn’t recognise the item that you have placed on the bagging area and nags you to ‘place the item in the bagging area’ before allowing you to proceed with the remainder of your purchases. Many times I have had to press the ‘I do not want to bag this item’ message to be able to progress only for the machine then to state ‘unrecognised item in bagging area’ when I place the next item there.

I also find that the Supermarkets tend to place the most moronic staff members on these self service tills and that should anything unexpected happen they then get in a ‘flap’ and have to call the supervisor over which can take AGES!! Could they not have members of staff on these tills that have an IQ higher than a monkey?

I would still prefer a monkey.

Me too 😀

I avoid self service service tills for many reasons.
They are no quicker than a manned till and much more frustrating than standing in a queue.
It’s all about money, not about wether the customer prefers to be served or wether their staff need their jobs is not their concern.
Progress? I don’t think so, its about time supermarkets got the message and started valuing their customers and staff.

I live in Scotland and we have had bag charging since the end of last year. Personally I am relieved not to have to stuff shopping into a flimsy useless plastic carriers which were guaranteed to split with sharp edges, e.g bacon packs, or heavy items like water bottles. I have a selection of different sized heavy duty bags now, and never break or spill anything from my shopping trip. The ‘single use’ bags were never much use even for bin liners because of their poor quality. However, if in England the charities expect to make any money from donations for single use bags, hmm, stats in Scotland suggest a 90%+ drop is use, so not much spare cash for the charities

Dave mac says:
8 August 2015

I shop at Aldi / Lidl or sometimes Lidl/ Aldi, they don’t have any robot tills but they do have a system that ensures adequate tills are manned/womanned according to the volume of customers. No they don’t have time for a chat but are always pleasant, quick and efficient. As a male who does the household shopping that is what I require.

robin58 says:
9 August 2015

Actually I have of a report by a person on the moneysavingexpert site, that Aldi are trailing a test site with self scans.

I disagree. Aldi/Lidl only usually have two tills open at a time when I go and the queues are much longer than the bigger supermarket. I do like a shop at these places but the till queues put me off. I would happily use self service tills or self scans in these two shops if they did bring them in.

Zoe says:
8 August 2015

The self scanning which you can do whilst walking around the store is far superior to the self-service checkouts and enables you to keep an eye on how much you are spending as well. I wish all stores had this option.

Andy rokard says:
8 August 2015

Wake up guys. It’s just another tax. Sod all to do with the environment.

Although you might see this as a tax on consumption, the net tax revenue to UK Government might actually go down, if supermarkets end up by buying fewer bags for their customers to use – i.e. any asociated VAT receipts would fall.

Hence I see this as more of a “nudge” in favour of sustainability.

Incidently, who do you suppose is already paying for all these “free” carrier bags?

MsSupertech says:
8 August 2015

I dislike self checkouts at the best of times and generally avoid them – but at least supermarkets provide a reasonable number of staffed checkouts. On the other hand I have been boycotting a number of local WH Smith stores for months because they usually only have a single staffed checkout. The store management seem unable (or unwilling) to realise just how much of their business requires a member of staff to carry out the transaction. Lottery tickets, cigarettes and the like can’t be bought at self checkouts and this is a sizable part of their business. They don’t sell anything I can’t but elsewhere so that’s what I do.
(And don’t mention all those McD’s vouchers and giant choc bars they try to inflict on us…)

Jackie says:
9 August 2015

The best self-service system is that in use in Waitrose – scan it yourself as you go round the shop and check your purchases out at one of the self-scan tills. No waiting and no silly messages, just one thanking me for shopping at Waitrose.

Re plastic bags. I use the supermarket ones for my rubbish (I get them from friends as I use reusable ones for food shopping) – they exactly fit my rubbish bins. I rarely take them from other stores. Happy to buy bin liners in the future, but how does this reduce use of plastic? At least the supermarket ones get used twice, unlike the bin liners.

Jackie, your restrained use of these bags is most commendable. I think the wider issue here is the more general behaviour of the UK population.

Our big shops are mostly from Ocado who take all plastic bags back for recycling as do some of the other supermarkets.

When we get a delivery, the bags are sorted into 3 piles – good condition get reused for shopping, slightly damaged get used in the rubbish bin (1 per week), and the unusable are put aside for giving back to Ocado.

We tried Waitrose self-scanning once and kept forgetting to scan the items. As we didn’t want to be accused of theft, didn’t use them again.

George Edwards says:
9 August 2015

Not only do i refuse to use self service tills but i avoid shopping in Supermarkets that encourage or even insist that customers use them.

I would much rather use self serve checkouts then I don’t have to ‘engage’ with the checkout person when I am in a hurry

Jenny says:
5 September 2015

My husband and I always used to laugh at “Unexpected item in the baggage area”
Like it new WHAT TO EXPECT, had it been spying on our shopping list!!

Well I’ve heard Tesco’s new self-service checkout… And his voice is more nauseating than the last.

He might have soothing tones, but do they not tell these voice actors to actually act, rather than trying to sound as robotic as possible. I’m not sure they get that we don’t want to be talked to by a robot.

And then he’s telling me information I don’t need. “Scan your clubcard to earn clubcard points” – thanks mr checkout. I scan my clubcard and he replies “all of your tesco points add up”. Oh really, I wouldn’t have guessed.

Hearing that echoing from all the checkouts in canon, as if I’m party to some demonic and monotone choir of robots intent on singing about clubcard points, is the infuriating icing on the cake. A cake that’s probably earned me some clubcard points I didn’t need to hear about.

Why can’t they employ a range of voice actors and get them to improvise the messages so they sound more natural and can be shared among the checkouts so they don’t repeat one another? I’m not looking forward to my next visit.

How do you get on with satnav Patrick? The lady on my ancient TomTom has a fairly natural voice and never loses her temper or goes into a sulk when I deliberately don’t follow her route. She just quietly looks at her maps and works out a new one. Quite therapeutic and soothing really. Perhaps Tesco could provide encouraging a soothing robots to enhance your shopping experience: “Ooh, that soup’s really nice”, “you’ve got a great deal there Patrick” and “careful not to eat too much of that cake but it is more-ish”. Or you could of course visit a human checkout 🙂 .

I’d like a satnav in Tesco’s too. I would put in our shopping list and it would guide me round the store by the most efficient route [remembering to do chilled and frozen goods last].