Every day at 9:00 am sharp, 72-year-old Gisele shows up at her local hypermarket in western France to “cheat loneliness”.
She always picks the same checkout counter, the one where patrons are encouraged to linger and shoot the breeze as they settle up.
Here at the “Hyper U” store in Nantes, western France, they have an official name for the designated checkout: “Bla Bla Caisse” (“Chitchat checkout”).
A blue sign saying “here we take our time” encourages those with time on their hands to linger and talk, and nudging those who don’t to pay at a different counter.
“I talk about everything and nothing, for example about my grandkids coming over for the holidays,” said Gisele, dressed in an elegant blue jacket with a fur collar and clutching a red bag, a baguette tucked under her arm.
Except for school breaks when she has company, Gisele’s daily Hyper U trips are the only chance to see people, she said, so “dressing up” for the occasion makes sense.
“I used to play bridge at a club, but because of Covid I don’t really feel like going anymore,” she said.
Behind the checkout counter Rozenn Charpentier, 52, scans groceries while listening to a customer in her 60s complaining that she was given a ticket although she “wasn’t parked that illegally”.
A client in his 60s is in a better mood, having just won €150 ($170) in a scratch card game.
Two teenagers, meanwhile, buy pellet toy guns. “Be careful with those,” Charpentier warns them.
“At the ‘bla bla’ counter I feel free to start a conversation, people are usually happy to talk,” she said.
‘This is not Amazon’
The store’s cashiers take turns at the chitchat counter, on a voluntary basis.
The supermarket opened the slow checkout two years ago to “revive human contact” with customers after the store’s six self-service counters went into service, said Regis Defontaine, head of communication and events at the supermarket.
“There’s nothing particularly original about customers and sales staff having a conversation. But these days we’re losing that social link and some say that’s a pity. This is not Amazon,” he said, in reference to the US online retailer.
Customers who pick the chatting queue are typically elderly, often live alone and have all the time in the world, he said.
Other national hypermarket brands, like Auchan and Carrefour, now have similar setups.
“Some clients like to take their time and talk,” said Pierre-Emmanuel Vasseur, the manager of the Carrefour Angers Grand Maine store.
Here, it’s been just over a week since the first chitchat checkout opened, with customers both curious at, and mystified by, the novelty.
“What are we supposed to talk about?” asked one man in his 60s with well-groomed grey hair and an impeccable shirt.
A woman inquired eagerly: “Do we have a time limit?”
“Since I’m supposed to chat with you, let me say that I find you charming,” a man said to the young cashier.
Just behind him, another client has second thoughts: “I’m not a good talker,” he said, before pushing his trolley in the opposite direction.
No such hesitations for Marie-Luc Lefeuvre-Justeau, a 82-year old regular, who says she likes to chat when she goes shopping.
“The problem is that usually somebody will complain because they’re in a hurry,” she said. “But here, we don’t bother anybody.”