Hey Presto

Flip clock on a desk

Sometimes, when I think about my earliest days, I remember Presto. Even as a very young child, in the very early 90s, Presto seemed like a supermarket from a bygone age.

I remember how — seemingly uniquely for a supermarket — the cashiers would have to manually punch the price of each item into their checkout terminal.

This meant that the receipts were not itemised, but consisted of a list of prices in faint blue text, on a thin wisp of paper about the size of a bus ticket (if you can remember what a bus ticket is). On a really exciting day, you’d get a receipt with the tell-tale red streak telling the cashier it was time to change the paper.

This manual till operation also meant the shop contained a miniature army of workers with little sticker guns printing out price stickers to go on tinned sausages, frozen pizzas, and packets of Salt & Shake.

Presto became Safeway, before becoming Presto again, then Safeway again. Wikipedia explains why. Presto’s owner, Argyll Foods, had acquired Safeway in 1987, and began converting its stores to phase out the Presto brand.

In 1993, that strategy changed, and the Presto brand was phased back in due to customers’ loyalty in the north of the UK. Another strategy U-turn came in the mid-90s when the parent company changed its name to Safeway.

My local Presto/Safeway store also had a uniquely bad lift. It creaked its way slowly from the car park up to the shop floor, which was not a great distance.

One day, the lift started to sound really bad. A horrible screeching sound. You could feel it dragging.

Another day afterwards, I discovered why. The lift doors didn’t close. I remember watching the remains of some sort of food or vomit or something that had been spilled on the wall. An incident that presumably happened another time the lift doors failed to close.

I am reminded of that lift every time I use the lift in my local branch of Waitrose, which was originally a Safeway also built in the 1980s. Thankfully I’ve never seen the doors stay open in one of the Waitrose lifts, but the creaking is somewhat familiar.

I also vividly recall the flip clock on the wall behind the checkouts. Flip clocks (or Solari clocks) told the time in a digital format, but with a mechanical display rather than an electronic one.

What was the thinking behind this? Why not have a standard analogue clock? Was Presto trying to convey a sense of modernity to make up for the lack of barcode scanners? Or perhaps to distract from its dangerous lift?

I mention all this because I read this BBC News article about Solari airport departure boards, which used the same principle as the flip clock. And for some reason it brought it all back.

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