The forgotten serpent

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20:  Shoppers queue to...
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This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald

How rarely hurried shoppers see the lengthy queue that stands to pay the bill?

Standing in line at the billing counter in a store probably ranks up there with queuing up to get your child admitted into kindergarden. Invariably there is only one sales counter open for billing and even if another counter is open, store employees are too busy taking inventory or clearing the umpteen bills and paperwork on the counter. If you’re lucky, the clerk at the open counter will be merely inept. Usually, I find them doing the hard sell to sign up for the store’s frequent shopper program or at times even insolent. The inevitable delay means irate customers in the queue. Tempers start running high and everyone in line tries to figure out how they can get ahead in the queue.

If you are a customer with a large number of purchases, you’d more than likely not, be a thankless victim in the queuing game. You wait with heavy baskets laden with your purchases, gritting your teeth at the befuddled look on the sales clerk’s face while he grapples with pricing. The interminable wait becomes worse with the immature behaviour of fellow shoppers. Someone who has few items to buy often relies on his compatriots’ magnanimity while others try to ride roughshod to the head of the line. Subtle jostling begins with furtive looks at watches amid audible sighs. Even when a customer exclaims loudly at the bad service, there is no effect on the store employees except for a hostile look or a garbled explanation. “He’s new at the job” or “solpa adjust maadi, I’ll do it quickly” are often heard across the counter.

I really don’t know which is worse – the sheer effrontery of that customer who simply walks to the counter without meeting anyone’s eye and plonks his purchases on the counter and demands to be billed or the passivity of the clerk behind the counter when faced with a blatant queue-jumper. Is he blind to the serpentine line in front of him? One can fume at the errant shopper’s audacity silently or remind him of the queue behind him. The inexperienced shopper may even try to appeal to the clerk. This only draws a blank look or a grudging shrug of acceptance of reality. As this drama unfolds at the counter, the waiting line becomes jagged and any resemblance to a queue is incidental.

Repeated experiences with such queues can make one philosophical. I wonder why we have such a hard time with queues. The answer will have to wait, as the line in front of me has just shrunk and I am at the counter now!

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