You can’t beat service with a smile

Self-service shopping is meant to be fast and convenient, but it’s not quite the same as service with a smile, is it? I am not smiling while steering a trolley through pyramids of pre-packaged items in some heat-sealed emporium. I can still remember the old was of shopping that went before.

There were those high street ‘cathedrals’ with ornate interiors that smelled of camphor. They were places filled with the sounds of creaking floorboards and cash bells whirring across the ceiling, instead of the stereophonic blast of Status Quo. Wherever I went shopping in the 1950s customers were greeted by smiling staff with the words: “Can I help you, madam?” Stepping inside the store meant encountering plasticfaced ball-gowned mannequins instead of my image on the screen of security TV. Browsing through ‘Gowns and Mantles’ over the vogue for ‘mutton-sleeved’ suits and pencil-slim skirts certainly had the edge over today’s vogue for self-served, heat-wrapped ‘separates’ and ‘instant credit’.

In today’s consumer society shopping seems to be more about focusing the attention on memorising brand names, E-numbers, calorie counts and TV slogans -such a time-consuming chore compared with the priorities of the past.

Shopping in the well-known grocery stores of Lipton’s or the Maypole seemed far more convenient and time-saving. Butter was butter, no matter how anyone described the mound of yellow, scooped, patted and wrapped in small, neat squares. Sugar was scooped from a sack into stiff, blue bags. Biscuits came from square metal tins in no-nonsense varieties of ‘plain’ or ‘fancy’.

Prom the 1940s a shortage of basic food meant the introduction of rationing. Each person was given a weekly allowance of ‘points’ on the production of a ration book. The books came in different colours according to age group – buff for adults, blue for children and green for babies who were allowed extra milk, meat and eggs whenever these were available.

In those days, shopping meant balancing the family’s nutritional needs against the weekly ration allowance, which included 8oz. sugar, 4oz. butter, 1oz. cheese, 2oz. tea, and one egg.

By 1942, even sweets had been rationed to 8oz. sweets or chocolate a month. The Ministry of Food suggested recipes for making sweets at home, and the most successful was toffee made from golden syrup, cocoa, sugar and dried milk. When rationing ended in the 1950s, and the first of the self-service stores opened, it was hailed by many as the ‘wonder of the age’. Shoppers entered them with caution and gratitude for the variety of tinned, jarred and fresh foodstuffs which had been unobtainable for so many years.

Things might not have changed for many of Britain’s families today, still struggling to shop on tiny budgets.

I can only imagine what impact rationing would have on today’s self-centred, self-service society.

A whole generation of shoppers raised on bonus points, trolley dash competitions and every day signs reading ‘Sale – Everything Must Go’. Even the annual sales of the past were strictly once a year. Shoppers came in search of marked-down ‘Liberty’ bodices, long-lasting Bakelite kitchenware and durable calico sheets -not TV sets, video recorders and computer games.

Maybe shopping was never intended to be a leisurely affair – at least, not for me. Even while I sit with my instant, self-served coffee, within the confines of the supermarket, I still dream of those far-off days – the Kardomah waitresses in white aprons, red-tabled Espresso bars and frothy coffee, tall stools in the ice cream parlours of glass and chrome.

Self-service shopping might be fast and convenient -but it’s nothing compared with the service with a smile of those days of long ago.

Sally Bowler