Thank You for Shopping With Us

(Originally appeared in Main Line Life 5/14/08)

Some days I feel as though I must be invisible. There I was waiting in line to pay for my purchase at (insert the name of almost any chain retail store here). There were eight registers and one cashier ringing up purchases. The cashier and the customer she was waiting on were involved in a labyrinthine exchange transaction that involved lost receipts, wrong sizes, expired coupons, and a disputed price. There was one other woman waiting before me. The cavernous, brightly-lit store was pretty much empty except for four other employees and us.

Two of the employees, we’ll call them Rhonda and Randi, were having a conversation about a dating catastrophe one of them had experienced the previous Saturday night. The reason I know this is not because I was eavesdropping, but because they were talking and laughing loudly enough so that anyone with normal hearing could hear every detail. They were both also staring intently at one of the computer terminal screens on the other side of the counter while they gabbed. At one point Rhonda and Randi glanced up and saw the other shopper and me trapped in our spots, but they quickly averted their eyes. Back to whatever they were figuring out on the computer (maybe they were shopping online somewhere else?), and their conversation about the Bad Date. And after all that he still expected me to have sex with him! Eww, I really wanted to hear about that, and the play-by-play analysis that followed.

Meanwhile, two male employees were half-heartedly folding clothing, every now and then breaking into a basketball jump shot at an imaginary backboard. Much laughter and back-slapping hilarity ensued. That is when I began to feel invisible.

Fast forward to your neighborhood Mega-Bookstore. Again, there is a very long counter with many registers, and one cashier working. A chatty older gentleman, he is intent on becoming best friends with every single customer that comes his way. That must be why he gets involved in a prolonged conversation with each one. Not that I am against friendliness, but when you see twelve customers in line with glazed, defeated looks on their faces, I would think Mr. Friendly Cashier might call for reinforcements. Even worse, while we were all trapped in line, at least two other employees strolled behind the counter (one of them with a tag that denoted her as the assistant manager), did some small task, and then scurried away as quickly as they could. As a group, we customers in line were momentarily buoyed by the possibility of another register opening. Oh, how cruelly our hopes were dashed.

Now I realize that working as a retail clerk might not be the most stimulating employment, and I know that most of these types of jobs pay minimum wage. And I also realize that some customers are rude, sloppy, entitled, and thoughtless. Those same people don’t treat anyone with courtesy and respect. Those same people think it’s okay to floor it through red lights and bring twenty items into the ten item express lane at the grocery store. I truly believe those people are the exception though. The majority of people I’ve observed seem to go out of their way to be nice and treat store employees with respect and courtesy.

Most retail establishments would state that customer service is a top priority for them – a true corporate philosophy that should reach all the way down to the lowest paid employees. So why have eight registers if only one or two are ever used? And why are employees doing tasks like folding clothes and unpacking boxes when twelve people are in line to pay? Should an employee be embroiled in a personal phone conversation when a live customer is standing right in front of him, unacknowledged?

When I finally got up to the register, no thanks to Rhonda/Randi who were now discussing the best salons for bikini waxing, the sales clerk asked me Would you like to join our customer rewards program? If you give us you e-mail address we can send you online news and coupons. May I have your phone number please? Your zip code? Or my favorite: Keep this receipt and go online and answer a few questions about your experience in this store today and you will be entered into a drawing.
I might do that if I thought anyone was listening.

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