Feature

What the supermarket clerk really thinks about you

Clean up on aisle nine!

Your therapist knows all your secrets. You know who else has a pretty good handle on your existence?

The checkout clerk at your favorite grocery store. Day after day, year after year, she's been watching your life go by on the conveyor belt that leads to check-stand No. 5: The sparkling wine you bought when you fell in love and the Haagen Dazs that eased the pain of falling out. What magazines you peruse when you're bored and whether you prefer to smell like Mountain Breeze or Sporty Spice. She sold you the organic produce and pregnancy tests you bought when the two of you were trying to conceive and the caffeine and diapers that got you through the aftermath.

Let's face it: Those nice people who always ask how your day is going know a lot about you, your tastes, your finances, your personal quirks … even how often (and how well) you clean your bathroom.

With that in mind, you might be interested to know what goes through their minds as these folks scan your cans and code your produce. We asked a handful of clerks from three different major chain stores to share some of their thoughts about and impressions of customers. On the condition of anonymity — all respect their employers and want to keep their jobs — they responded with refreshing candor. Based on their most consistent responses, we compiled the following list of facts that may just surprise you.

1) Grocery clerks are usually pretty smart people who could be pursuing more "prestigious" careers … they just happen to love their jobs.

More than half the people interviewed for this article have secondary degrees. They didn't choose the checkout line because they had to; they see the job as an opportunity to make a good living working with other people.

"My job is the perfect job for me," says Jill, a checker in a trendy store popular with the all-natural set. "I don't have the temperament to sit at a desk all day."

Ross, who works for a large corporate chain, agrees. "I started working in the grocery store as a way to make money in college. When I graduated, I think many people expected me to go out and start a more white-collar career. However, I could more quickly and easily realize my goal to support my family and manage my own schedule continuing in a job I really enjoyed."

Grocery stores need employees on the front lines to be efficient, well spoken, and responsive. The screening process for applicants at major chains is rigorous, and the training for those who are accepted is exacting. A grocery clerk must not only master a fairly complex computer — the modern register — and memorize numerous products and their corresponding codes, he or she must also be able to make quick and important decisions when the unexpected occurs.

Customer disputing a scanned price? Forgot his wallet? About to throw up on the bag boy?

Checkout clerks encounter all kind of scenarios they must manage with grace and tact. It takes a smart person to do all that … and do it with a smile.

2) They appreciate it when you treat them with respect

Speaking of smiles: kind, intelligent, and polite people like to deal with other kind, intelligent, and polite people.

"Customer interactions are absolutely my favorite part of the job," Jill says, noting she is often hugged by customers and even considers some of them friends after years of swapping greetings and recipes. "However … and this doesn't happen very often … someone will treat me as an employee rather than as another human being."

The men and women who work long hours on their feet at the check-stand exert themselves to be pleasant to you. So why not return the favor? When it's your turn to come through the register, stop barking into your Bluetooth. Make eye contact when the checker greets you and respond to her questions. That text/Tweet/Instagram post can wait while you share a moment with the real live human in front of you.

You might just learn something useful.

"If a customer comes through with, say, a few bottles of vitamin supplements, and I happen to know that brand is going on a half-price sale during the next couple of days, of course I'll let her know," says Ross. "We like to save people money whenever we can."

Checkers are on your side. So don't blame them if the line felt too long or if the guy in front of you used nineteen coupons and forgot his debit card PIN; these things are not under a clerk's control. You know what is under her control? Your perishables. So be nice.

3) They don't judge

Clara has seen it all.

"You have no idea!" Clara laughs over coffee in the Starbucks embedded within the large urban market where she works. "The grandma who comes back to the store every Sunday after doing the week's shopping with grandpa, so she can score her Virginia Slims without his knowing… the guy who buys the same bottle of bourbon every other day ‘for a friend'… the teenagers who slide that box of condoms casually in between a deli sandwich and a pack of gum …

"Look, people's choices are their own business. If an obese person wants to buy junk food from my grocery store, well, my job is to make that transaction pleasant and easy for that customer, not to judge him or her."

Clara and her peers have scanned everything from adult diapers and personal lubricants to laxatives and lice treatment shampoo. They understand the human condition, so don't be embarrassed by your purchases. They've probably seen worse.

4) … Usually

On the other hand, if it is you who is the embarrassment, they notice. They probably won't say anything — it goes against stores' policy for clerks to call out customers for behaving badly — but they notice, and they'll remember the next time you go in. Expect a certain coolness from store employees in the future if you:

"… divide up a full cart into separate orders just so you can sneak through the express line. Really? Like you think we won't notice you inconveniencing our other customers just to serve yourself?"

" … are demeaning or rude to our disabled courtesy clerks. We are proud to work for an inclusive employer, so we feel an insult to our mentally-challenged colleagues as much as we would a direct insult to us."

" … make comments about other customers who may be using government assistance to make their purchases. Nothing makes me angrier than seeing some holier-than-thou with a platinum credit card making snide remarks about a young mother using WIC to feed her kids!"

5) They legitimately care

The compassion for the young mother on federal assistance mentioned above was echoed in some way by every checker interviewed for this article. They recognized and sympathized with customers they knew to be struggling financially. Every person we spoke to had a story (many more than one) about pulling out his or her own wallet to pay for something that was clearly needed or wanted by someone in line who just didn't have the resources to cover the purchase.

And this compassion extends beyond those in financial straits.

"I train new hires on the register. I always tell them that each transaction is a 1-2 minute therapy session for the customer," says Jill. "After a while, you just get really good at sensing how someone is doing on a given day, and you have opportunities to bring something positive into that person's life."

Clara, for example, tells the story of a regular customer who seemed to be going through a hard time.

"This very nice older woman who always came in to do her shopping beautifully dressed, with her makeup and hair done just so… just seemed to be struggling. For a couple of months I saw her looking more and more disheveled… and she wasn't buying the same things she used to, like great cheese and nice wine for dinner…

"So one day I just came out and asked, ‘Are you ok? I'm worried about you.' And it turns out, this lady's husband had Alzheimer's, and she was trying to care for him by herself. The simple fact that someone noticed and cared enough to ask meant the world to her."

Clara notes that shortly after their talk, her customer made the hard decision to place her husband in a care home, and shared that information with Clara, whom she now considers a friend.

Perhaps you won't end up befriending the person who rings up your weekly shopping, but the next time you hit the supermarket, keep in mind that the men and women behind the register register more than you might expect. Why not offer a smile and your thanks?

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