Stuck in a post office queue, all I could think about was how much I hate self-checkouts | Adrian Chiles

Inching towards the human behind the counter, I saw two great big machines that could have saved me the wait. Of course they were out of order

There are few sights so dispiriting as the back end of a queue poking out of a post office. Nobody pays a leisurely visit to a post office: there is always somewhere else you need to be and something else you should be doing. And there is always a queue. Still, on a Saturday morning, finding myself in a small town in Sussex with something boring but urgent to post, I was just relieved to find the place open. For the entertainment of oblivious shoppers in the square outside, a bloke crooned carols accompanied by a fuzzy backing tape. And someone joined the queue behind me, so I was no longer last in line. Things could have been worse.

With glacial slowness, we edged forward. Why, in the crooning of another couple of carols, I had made real progress, crossing the threshold into the building. My mood continued to lighten. But then I saw them: two great big red self-service machines that presumably, thanks to the march of what we call progress, could, after a lot of stabbing at a touchscreen, weigh, stamp and dispatch whatever goods we had come bearing this winter’s morning.

Except, obviously, both of these mighty machines were out of service. Is it just me, or are there always a number of self-checkout machines out of order? I’ve never come across a supermarket wherein 100% of the machines were available. Then again, I haven’t come across a shop in which 100% of the machines were unavailable.

These two beasts were proper big units. I dread to think how much they must have cost. And for what? How many human beings could you engage in gainful employment for that money? And how many of us in that queue would have preferred to interact with that machine than a human? None. No one. OK, I didn’t conduct any kind of survey, but I know.

If I’d had the choice between queueing for a person and not queueing for a working machine – depending on how long the queue was – I’d have queued. I spent some time pondering exactly how long that line would have to have been before I chose instead to tackle one of these gleaming miracles of innovation.

I also wondered, appraising my fellow queuers, how many of them, if forced, could have coaxed the machine into doing their bidding. Very few, I reckoned. I doubt I could have done; and even if I had, I’d have been left with niggling doubts that I’d got something slightly wrong, which would have resulted in my boring but important package not making it. I would always have more trust in a human, as long as it was not me.

The queue was so slow that my anger at the absurdity of the machines grew and grew. They really should think about covering them up when that always maddening no-entry sign is beaming out from the screen. To calm myself, I assumed the standard countenance of post office queuers: a slumping statue of quiet desperation, as dead-eyed as a lifeguard watching a solitary competent swimmer plough lengths in an otherwise empty pool.

When my turn at the counter arrived, I remarked, imaginatively, that it was a busy morning. The woman told me it was always like this. And, with a smile, she said she liked it that way. “Never bored working here!” she chirped. I asked what was wrong with the machines. “Nothing,” she explained. “It’s just we can’t have them on unless one of us is out there helping people use them. And we’re always too busy for that.”

I walked out of there delighted to have met someone plainly happy in her work, but in general despair about men, women and machines. The luddites weren’t entirely in the wrong. The wholly ignored carol crooner, no less demoralised, was packing up to go home.

  • Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at


Adrian Chiles

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