Seventeen of the best Countdown checkout operators have been put through their paces to find the country's Checker of the Year 2019. Among them was a journalist who found it harder than he expected.

A few weeks ago Countdown asked if I would like to see what life was really like behind the counter by giving it a go myself. Thinking it would be easy-peasy, I decided I would take up the offer and blitz the competition.

But it wasn't that easy. I forgot about my previous experience behind the till at Hunting and Fishing in Dunedin - that did not go well. Some customers were overcharged and others snagged some real bargains. I got the odd strong word from my boss and quickly learned to avoid it as much as possible.

So, as the moment drew closer last week, and with my previous till-terrors in mind, I turned to Google and YouTube in search of what working in a supermarket checkout actually entailed.

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Adding another pressure, I was going up against a former Checker of the Year champion and runner-up Eliza Ross. Now in a managerial role, Ross still helps train employees for a life behind the till and is well and truly the definition of a seasoned veteran.

After arriving at Countdown Mount Eden I headed to a designated area of the supermarket where a crowd of onlookers and staff had gathered.

I was given a quick run down. The items, of which there was a daunting 55, needed to be scanned quickly, accurately and packaged in the customer's reusable bags properly.

Countdown's Eliza Ross and NZ Herald journalist Luke Kirkness compete in the checkout aisle. Photo / Michael Craig
Countdown's Eliza Ross and NZ Herald journalist Luke Kirkness compete in the checkout aisle. Photo / Michael Craig

Rundown over, I was raring to go and to see what life was really like for a checkout operator. It was a David and Goliath moment, except this time David was the favourite to win.

One ... two ... three ... Go! And we were off.

First, I gave a friendly smile to my (fake) customer and asked them how their day was - it was great apparently, their day off. I then asked for the reusable bags and loaded them up on the carousel-like device designed to hold them and I was away scanning the first items.

I was keeping a good pace, I thought, but then took notice of Ross across the aisle from me and it was like I was moving in slow motion. Not only that but she was sliding all the products from the scanner into the bags with ease, there was no flustering about or thinking about what needed to go where.

That's when I really started to feel the pressure. I managed to keep a cool face and focused at the job at hand, keeping in mind they planned to trick me.

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I kept chipping away, slowly but surely and that's when I spotted it, the first curveball.
Hidden away in a brown paper bag with a handful of mushrooms was a cheeky clove of garlic, not this time. A bag a pears followed, six to be exact but there were two different kinds of three. I couldn't tell the difference and after establishing the specific type with the judge, I carried on.

The nation's best checkout operators went head to head in Mount Eden today. Photo / Michael Craig
The nation's best checkout operators went head to head in Mount Eden today. Photo / Michael Craig

Amazing I thought, I've picked up on all of their hidden tricks and I was keeping a great head of steam up. However, it was about now Ross came over to my till and started bagging the groceries I was scanning through. It was an extra four minutes before I limped over the line.

After that, a judge told me it was a great effort if an operator was able to get through 15 items every minute. I recorded a dismal 6.8 items per minute, Ross was leaps and bounds in front with 12.6 per minute and was even disappointed with her effort. She would have been faster too but took the time to walk around the other side of the till and help out the shopper.

Ross had beaten me for speed and was by far the better grocery-packer but the judges came back and said I was more accurate than she. A pack of Leggos tomato paste was my downfall, my one and only mistake, they come in a two-pack but the customer had only bought me one which I failed to notice. Ross made two mistakes, something which was very unlike the former champion.

So, what can I tell you about life behind the till? It's hard. When you're starting out anyway. I only did one run through and the customer was fake but it was still daunting at times. In a real-life scenario I wouldn't like my chances, that's for sure.

As for the nation's best battling it out to see who would be victorious, we won't know the results of that for a few weeks but it's fair to say it wouldn't be me.

I have, however, found a new respect for checkout operators and what they do every day of their shift and it's certainly something I wouldn't want to do. I also wouldn't rate my chances against Ross or any other checkout operator in a real-life scenario, that would just end in embarrassment.

However, Countdown Mount Eden store manager Wiebe van der Veen said he was surprised by my efforts, adding that my people skills were exemplary. He even said if things suddenly came to an abrupt end as a reporter, I should bring my CV along to his store.

Maybe he was just being nice.