Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Hazards of Being a Cashier

There's a post over at xoJane by a woman who used to be a cashier for Whole Foods and she's telling her "tales from the trenches."

In that article, she recounts some of the (terribly rude) ways that customers have mistreated her, and then she says this:
And I'm comfortable saying generally that Whole Foods customers are THE WORST.
Maybe the pervasive sense of entitlement is a product of their own economic insecurity. Maybe the pronounced class distinctions between the customers and employees make it easier to dehumanize the workers. Maybe shopping at Whole Foods makes customers feel so good about themselves that they forget it takes more than reusable bags to not be a terrible person.
I'm not here to dispute her experiences or get into some sort of contest over who has had the worse customer service experiences, but I am here to say that I don't think it's just pronounced class distinctions that give customers the false entitlement to treat store employees like the underclass.

I have this theory.

People are just so damn inconvenienced by having to be marginally polite to other human beings. It's truly a burden to have to spend their day interacting with people in a way that's considered socially acceptable, but there is one place where those rules can be broken down, and that place is the beautiful world of retail.

Thriftway Interior Upgrade | Interior Market Decor Design | Grocery Check Stand Markers | Thriftway Checkout Area | Admiral Thriftway
Finally, an end to the madness.
I am sure that this is true of all retail. Waiters and waitresses are notoriously mistreated, but they also have the retaliation tool of doing something disgusting to your food. People who work in malls and clothing stores also take a lot of abuse, but people don't usually have to go to those places and some people thoroughly enjoy the time they spend shopping for these luxury items. But grocery shopping is a necessity that happens often, and people hate it. I mean, truth be told, I hate it, too. It's not fun. It's crowded. The lights are too bright. It costs too much. You have to put all that food up when you get home. If you don't have a plan, you're scrambling around lost. If you do have a plan, then you had to spend time making a plan. Grocery shopping kind of sucks.

So here, in the midst of this miserable experience, people feel the power to release their barely-adhered-to social norms and treat another human being like filth.

Don't get me wrong. It's not every customer. In fact, it's not even most customers. Most people are normal and fine and just want to pay their money and go away. Some people are not normal, but they're chatty and happy and trying to make friends in the grocery line. That can be weird, but it's not mean.

And I also understand that cashiers can be mean, too.

But I worked as a cashier/service desk associate/customer service manager for two and a half years during my undergraduate days. The interactions I had with people during that time were insane. They were crazier than the interactions I had with basically any other job I had before or since. (Those jobs include serving beer at a golf course, working with behaviorally-challenged kids, and serving fast food). Here is a small sampling:
  • "You sure are chipper, ain't ya?" That's what a man said to me, glaring cruelly, as I bagged up his groceries, smiled, and told him to "Have a nice day." It was not a compliment. He practically spit it at me, as if my refusal to be miserable was a personal affront to his shopping experience. 
  • The Fish Pick-Up: Ladies, let me tell you the secret to "hooking" a man. See, I was an incredibly friendly (some would say "chipper") cashier. This is because being mean to people drags me down, and working an eight-hour shift as a cashier is enough of a drag already, so I had to balance it out. I was working the late-night shift when a man and woman came through with a bag of fish. The man is the one who sat the fish on the belt, so I guess he was sort of the one I was giving my "Did you find everything all right?" spiel to, but really it was mindless chatter they could both enjoy. As I handed him his fish, I told him that there was a 72-hour guarantee and if they died they could bring them back with a receipt. Then I told them to have a nice night. His wife leaned over the register at me, gave me her best "bitch, I'm gonna kill you" look and snarled "He's married, so you know!" Apparently "Hey, if your fish die, keep the receipt" is the hot new pick up line. I was seriously worried that she was going to be waiting for me in the parking lot. And I'm not trying to be judgmental, but this was definitely not a man I was going to be trying to snag, married or otherwise. 
Goldfish #115
  • I'm Going to Arkansas! As I was working the service desk one day, a man came up with a bag of raw chicken pieces. He slapped it down on the counter and said, "Give me my money. I'm filling up the gas tank and going to Arkansas." I asked for a receipt and he said, "Just put it on one of 'em little cards. It's going straight in the gas tank anyway." I calmly explained that without a receipt he could only exchange it for food (because of EBT rules). He started to argue with me, but then he gave up and wandered off toward the grocery section, leaving me with an increasingly-mushy bag of chicken. I felt like something was off and thought about calling a supervisor, but I figured he'd just go grab some food and life would go on. A few minutes later he appears doing what can only be described as a swagger carrying a case of beer. I sigh. "Sir, beer's not food. You can only exchange food without a receipt for other food products." The man--I kid you not--hoists himself up on the service desk counter with one arm and swings at me with the other. Another (male) cashier was behind the counter picking up returns and got in between us, telling the man he needed to calm down. I grabbed the phone to call a manager, and the guy saw me, grabbed his chicken, and ran off. I hope he made it to Arkansas. 
  • Then what are you doing here? A guy came through my line and I gave him the usual "How are you today?" Instead of the expected but oh-too-rare "fine," I got a (no exaggeration) three minute list of maladies ranging from a torn ligament in his knee to a cataract to work stress. He ended his monologue with a smug "but you didn't hear a word of that because you didn't really care how I was when you asked." I was feeling snarky, so I repeated his entire list of complaints back to him, in order, and his jaw literally dropped. Puzzled by this turn of events, he took his receipt and said, "If you're that smart, you shouldn't be working here" and walked off. Creep. 
These are truly just a sample. The stories go on and on and on and on. On a daily basis, people took the "How are you doing today?" question as an excuse to unload about everything from their deadbeat husbands to their dead-end jobs. During the holidays especially, people would complain about how they were buying things for ungrateful family members who didn't deserve it. On more than one occasion, people got mad at me when their total was more than they expected and once someone even asked me to cover the difference. A man trying to buy a full sheet cake with a EBT card in a woman's name with no ID tried to get me fired when I wouldn't make the sale. A man cussed me out because I told him a copy of his driver's license taped to the back of a Movietime card did not count as a valid ID. Three frat boys made me cry when they bought plastic cups, a bottle of vodka, and a bag of live goldfish and made me ring them up. 

Again, this was not every customer. Many customers were wonderful people, but this was enough customers that it was not an exception to the rule; it was the rule. There is substantial subset of the population that uses retail workers as their own personal emotional release. All the meanness they can't use throughout the day for fear of the consequences gets saved up for someone who has very little recourse. Every time a cashier is rude to me (and it happens), I remember all those days and cut him/her some slack. It's tough to be on the receiving end of that kind of vitriol, and I don't think it's limited to upscale chains full of snobs. 

Have you worked retail? Did it bring the reign of humanity's worst behavior? 


  1. I worked in retail as a clerk in a paint store through undergrad ('96-99) and I don't have any memories of particuarly rude customers. Oh wait, yes, I had one woman come in and ask for a product by name (Kilz) and then come back and complain to the manager I didn't tell her it was an oil based paint.

  2. Oddly as a brit i find peoples reactions to being asked how they are (except for the violent man obviously) perfectly reasonable. Reminds me of Groucho Marx and his perfect response to being told to have a nice day.

    Perhaps writing about employers who mistake politeness for intimacy would make more sense?

    1. I think there's definitely a cultural difference. And, personally, I didn't really mind when people gave honest answers unless it turned into a pseudo-psychology session.

      The guy who gave the laundry list of complaints didn't bother me because he complained about how he was. It bothered me that he assumed I wasn't intelligent because I was working there, and then he insulted an entire class of people's intelligence by saying that if I was that smart, I should leave. I did leave because it was just a temporary thing for me, but I know many intelligent people who continue to do that type of work for a ton of different reasons.

  3. What were the frat boys going to do with those fish? :O As a volunteer cashier in a charity shop, I once had a customer who made me call my supervisor to get me more coins because I had no penny or two-pence pieces, and he was due a penny change. A well-dressed man in a charity shop. ONE penny. My supervisor was so disgusted, she gave him a five-pence coin and walked him to the door. He didn't seem at all ashamed of having forced a charity to give him money he wasn't entitled to.

  4. I worked in a book shop for three years while I was in high school and in my gap year, and then in several different retail shops and a kebab shop during my first year of uni. I generally found that people weren't actually too bad. I tried to go in with the idea that rude people were just hilarious, and I'd try to be extra nice to them just to spite them. :D But there will always be people who hate on you just because you had the audacity to smile at them.

  5. Definitely! I loved being extra nice to rude people. What were they going to do? Tell my manager I was too nice to them?

  6. I've worked as a cashier in a ghetto department store, and in two stores in white neighborhoods. The absolute worst was the megastore across from the mall in a "good" nabe. I seldom had problems at the ghetto store, and the regulars were good-natured and nice. The white discount store had an occasional cheat but almost no truly bad-tempered bastards. The mall store? Entitled, rude, unfriendly.