I visited WHSmith again at an airport terminal. This time it was at T5, Heathrow, on my way to New York. I had quite a different experience, however, from my previous visit through Gatwick South. Instead of everyone queuing for the human-operated tills, they were all swiping away at the self-service checkout ones. The way the store had been designed led you to the bank of automated tills and the assistant (I swear he was the same one I saw at Gatwick) herded them in with an arm stretched out – shielding the only manned till at the back of the store from view. I held my head high, ignored his arming tactics and walked straight to the human till (there was no queue) and handed my magazine over to the human assistant to scan.
Meanwhile, behind me was a cacophony of bleeps, and Siri-sounding voices – “please insert your card, please press cancel, please don’t do anything I tell you not to but do make sure you pay. Have a nice day…” bleep, bleep, bleep!!
The young lad behind the till ‘transactioned’ me, and I put my credit card in the box machine and while waiting for it to be accepted, asked him how he coped with the incessant automated voices in front of him. He looked at me, and said “oh that, it is easy. You just tune out. You have to, otherwise, you would go insane.”
But then he added, “what really bothers me is the air con above.”
I looked up and saw a large white box shuddering and bleating, hovering overhead.
“It keeps blasting out cold air and after an hour my hands are completely white. Freezing. The noise is pretty bad but the cold, it gets to you.”
I wanted to reach out there and then and rub his hands together. White finger syndrome is not pleasant – especially 8 hours of it every day.
Meanwhile Mr Frogmarch continued to smugly cordon off the air con zone coercing people towards the automated barking voices. The machines continued chirpily their non-stop chatter with obliging but more often frustrated customers.
I thanked Mr White Finger profusely for his humanity and wished him well but refrained from saying ‘have a nice day’.
It wont be long now before real shop assistants will be a thing of the past. There will only be human marshals populating our stores, patronizing those who deign to make a mistake at the alter of the all-seeing Almighty Computer.