Convenience Stores, Working In
The objective of this article is to show how to be a reliable, pleasing and efficient convenience store worker, but still survive. With over four years experience of working behind the counter, the author will attempt to guide the impoverished hitchhiker looking for a spot of cash through the twists and turns, tricks and tips, on how to deal with a variety of temper testing trials that confronts the average store worker every day.
Regardless of its nature, a businesses main goal is to make money. This may mean supplying the best components, the loudest music, the tastiest food, the sharpest picture, or the most pleasurable sensations, but this article is not about components, music, food, pictures or even any kind of sensation whatsoever (unfortunately). This article is about how to provide the best service any droolingly stupid customer can get, in order to encourage them to keep coming back to your store to spend gigantic amounts of cash.
It does not mean that the store must stock every conceivable basic essential, or that it must slash prices in order to attract customers, or that it must advertise wildly in all forms of media. No. The store must provide an unthreatening, homely feeling to its patrons. The atmosphere in a store must exude a feeling of `welcomeness'. A feeling of safety. A feeling that the shop is not there just for the sole purpose of making money for the proprietor, but that it is there just for the sole convenience of the customer.
This is of course, a load of insubstantial bunk. A shop is there to make money for the proprietor, and for the people that work there. Business is business. Money is money. Customers are irritating. This article is also about how to put up with them.
The shop assistant's average job description could go something like this: "The employee will operate the electronic cash tendering machines, re-stock shelves, and tidy up the counter area and shop floor whenever necessary, in a friendly, efficient manner. The employee will ensure that the customer be completely happy at all times, and rectify the situation if this standard of performance is not attained."
Pretty boring stuff huh? It would be more helpful if someone could expand the `rectify the situation' part in the above description. On the same topic, it would be of far greater help if snow didn't fall on tarmac, but who am I to complain? My hypothesis is that `rectify the situation' means `sort out the problem so that the customer goes away happy'. However, my time spent behind the counter has left me quite bitter and twisted, so I shall amend that to `sort out the problem so that the customer just goes away'.
Following is some vital information that should be born in mind whilst working.
A shop worker should already be familiar with the standard customer life cycle. We are not concerned with the "customer is born, customer shops, customer dies" kind of life cycle, but with the following more specific life cycle: customer enters shop, customer chooses item(s), customer queues at the counter, customer purchases goods, and customer leaves. It should be stated that customers should be encouraged to accelerate this cycle, since getting them in and out as quickly as possible is good business practice.
A common misconception for most public citizens is that all floor staff have the mental capacity of a treacle pudding. This is not the case, as many treacle puddings can attest to. It is far more accurate to state that the customer has a tiny bit of knowledge about what goes on in a shop, but basically knows more about what your pet cat ate for breakfast than about store rules, policy and procedures. In the rare circumstances where the customer is actually right, then the assistant must do everything in their power to `rectify the situation'.
Shop staff are usually obliged to be courteous, helpful to the customers, and make them feel welcome in the establishment. Being courteous entails listening attentively, saying "please" and "thank you", and speaking clearly. Being helpful means that they should be given good advice about products, clear directions to a part of the store, or actually taking them, or going to get the item yourself. Making the customer feel welcome is as simple as smiling at them. Or is it? Smiling requires many muscles in your face, and after a few minutes of constant smiling, can become quite tiresome, and make your face ache like you would not believe. Counter staff will find that it is actually possible to use approximately fifty percent of the facial muscles, to produce an adequate, yet relatively pain-free smile. Practise by smiling in a mirror, and try to relax your face until it does not cause discomfort. Many public figures have mastered this technique. Some being politicians, most Royalty, movie stars, newsreaders, and loan sharks. Care must be taken not to smile `aggressively' or `insincerely'. These types of smile may be demonstrated if you smile whilst saying "I want to eat your children" or by watching a used-car salesman. It may be worth practising a different smile for members of the same and the opposite sex. These two smiles may be described as the "I'm an efficient member of staff" smile, or the "I'm only doing this because I'm attracted you" smile, respectively. Be careful not to mix the two up, otherwise you may be on the receiving end of unwelcome attention, or a smack round the chops.
It is essential to completely understand and operate every piece of electronic equipment in the store. Embarrassing situations can easily arise due to faulty appliances breaking down, or doing unexpected things such as ejecting reams of paper, or squealing "help me" beep-beep noises. Be certain that the cash register's normal operations are understood, as this is the most important and most used piece of equipment. Electronic scales are usually the most temperamental piece of equipment, and can often be completely inoperable if off balance, or if they're having a `bad weigh day'. Scales usually have an "engineer call-out" number stuck to them, but this is usually unnecessary, since a sharp blow with a price gun usually does the trick. The price-gun method's advantages are twofold. Firstly, it is much cheaper than an extortionate call-out fee. Secondly, it makes you feel better with the knowledge that you've just beaten the hell out of it.
There are three types of customer: adults, children, and old age pensioners, all of which can be devided into subtypes.
"Zoomers" know exactly what they want, home in like a hawk on the item in question, and are usually in, served, and out of the shop in under thirty seconds. This type of customer is usually the most pleasing to deal with, since they are not around long enough to annoy you.
"Wanderers", on the other hand, have absolutely no idea why they have entered the shop, and probably have no memory of actually making their way there either. Aimlessly pacing up and down the isles, and scrutinising every item, makes this class of customer easy to spot. Wanderers often purchase the greatest range of items, from nothing to everything, and can be quite irritating when they walk away from the counter to go and find something else to purchase whilst the cashier is in the middle of ringing up their items (making serving the next customer impossible). Wanderers have been known to stay in a shop for up to eight hours at a time; eat breakfast, lunch and dinner; be paid by the management to search for out-of-date items; or to pretend to be shop security.
"Shoppers" are a cross between the two, have a rough idea of what they are after, but will always see something else that they like too. Shoppers can be distinguished from wanderers and zoomers because they will invariably enthuse to the cashier that they "only came in for this..." whilst waving one item in the air, and then unloading an armful of shopping onto the counter.
Good customers are a delight to serve. They place all their items in a basket; invariably have their own carrier bag and money at the ready; help you pack their purchases; say "thank you" or other complementary goodbyes; and vacate the counter area as quickly as possible. Bad customers are usually stone-faced; have an armful of shopping; are quite verbally terse when `requesting' items; usually ask for a free carrier bag and just watch you pack it; `remember' that they have to take their wallet out of their pocket in order to pay, and pull a face when they realize that they will actually have to expend effort to do so; and generally be grumpy old bastards. `Accidentally' over-charging, or `accidentally' short changing such a customer is considered bad practice, but who would honestly give a damn about them anyway?
As well as the younger versions of the above types there are the following subtypes in this category.
"Old Children/Young Adults" are much the same as the previously described types, with the exception that it's very difficult to tell their age. This is relevant when dealing with age-related sale restrictions. These types are usually just on the verge of their voice breaking, and often behave very sneakily while they walk about the shop. They will attempt to buy cigarettes, glue, aspirins, or lighter fluid, and will resolutely answer "Yes" to the question "Are you sixteen?" even though they are in actual fact not. It is unfair to describe them all as `potential little shop-lifters', so just keeping an eye on them will usually stop the more daring from trying anything.
"Screamers" are often dragged screaming round a shop by their parents, and generally make communication very difficult. Children can be turned into screamers by the parents telling them off, smacking them or denying them sweets or toys.
"Innocents" are the type of child that sort of know how to shop, but don't have a clue in which order to do it. This type often jump to the start of queues, interrupt you in the middle of a transaction, or hand you some money then wander off to find the required item.
"Stupids" are innocents, only more so. They have no idea how to count, and often try to purchase far too many sweets and crisps with the amount of money they have. Understanding `simple' statements such as "You don't have enough money", seems to completely confuse them, so they just cry and walk out.
The best advice I can give for handling these young kids, is to progress though this list of questions, and play it by ear:
- Is mummy or daddy here?
- Have you got any money?
- What have you come to buy?
- What do you mean you're 34 and want some cigarettes?
"OAPs" have a few idiosyncrasies, and will still fit into some of the above categories. Their main distinction is that everything slows down when they come to the counter. They have to negotiate through eight layers of clothing before they can even begin their battle against arthritis, opening purses, and sorting out change. Queues often build up to traffic-jam proportions if one of the `zimmer set' decides to go shopping. OAPs can be a bit deaf, so staff may have to raise their voice, or learn to switch on a variety of hearing aids. You may find that explaining that their hearing aid batteries have failed can be quite difficult, but the astute will recognise it as a sales opportunity in disguise. Transactions taking twenty minutes are not unheard of.
Failing eyesight is also a large obstacle to overcome. A fairly common conversational snippet is "What price is this? I've forgotten my reading glasses!". Walking through plate glass windows or falling over children or animals is a common reason for calling in the emergency services. Do not forget to get their payment as they are stretchered out.
Customers usually have an irritating habit of attempting to make idle conversation. It is always preferable for the shop worker to appear friendly to the public, so do please try to make yourself appear interested in whatever drivel they are waffling on about. This is not normally a problem, except of course when there is a large queue of customers behind them. It can be especially trying if the customer is saying the same thing that the last twenty customers, who also thought they'd make conversation, said. This is especially noticeable if the customer decides to make a `joke'. This situation forces the employee to act as if it's the first time that they have heard the joke, and then make themselves `laugh'. This stressful pretence must be kept up, otherwise putting the customer in a socially awkward position, and reducing their tendency to visit the establishment in the future. The two most common questions that are asked in a shop usually follow one another. They are "Do you have any of ITEM X?" and "How much is it?" to which the member of staff must try to answer without screaming at the customer to "go and find it yourself, you useless pillock". To prepare you for customer interaction, typical conversational starters and some standard replies are included here for your reference:
- Reply: "Morning!"
"Isn't the weather nice?" - "Yes, it's lovely, isn't it?" (You are really thinking: "What do you want?")
"Phew! It wasn't raining like this yesterday was it?" - "No, it was lovely, wasn't it?" ("Please. In, money, out. Is that too much to ask?")
"Did you catch the football yesterday?"
- "No, I didn't. What did I miss?" ("Please! Anything but that!") Show false interest. It keeps them happy.
"I only came in for this..."
- "Yeah?" ("Well, zip-dee doo-dah!")
Appear interested in their selection, as if you are going to ask them why they need it. Don't bother to actually ask.
"Ahhh, they don't make 'em like this anymore, do they?"
- "No they don't!" ("I'm not really paying attention you know!")
"Oh, hang on a sec, I forgot something. I'll just leave this here." Don't say anything. Keep your cool. Shove their stuff out the way and serve the next customer.
"That twenty's a good one, I printed it myself!"
The number of times I've heard this one is unbelievable. Just smile. Bite tongue if necessary.
"Don't rub it too hard, the ink will come off!"
Just smile, anything else isn't worth it. Believe me.
"This is my last tenner!"
Just smile and get on with the transaction. ("Well bugger me! I've just used my last brain cell!")
"I'm sorry, I haven't got anything smaller." - "That's all right." ("Well duh, what do you think a cash register is for? Leaning against?")
"Do you want some change?"
- "I can take any change you like." ("Do you want a sarcastic reply?") Some people just don't get it, do they?
"Do you want the odd five?"
- "Yes please." ("You are determined to make my life hell, aren't you?") Usually this happens after you have sorted out the correct change. Try taking 1.12 pounds out of a crisp 20 pound note, and calculating the change (it works out to be at least one of every note and coin).
"Cheap at half the price!"
I've never properly understood this one. One of life's eternal mysteries I suppose.
"Thanks very much!"
- "Thank you." ("Please clear the counter area as quickly as possible.")
"Well, there's not much left out of that, is there?!!"
- "No there isn't." ("Just get out.")
"Has the price gone up?" - "Yes it went up the other day" ("Now get out of my shop you doddering old fool!") They don't realise that the price is marked clearly on 95% of the items in the store. The other five percent are penny sweets and fresh vegetables, and even then the price is displayed on the shelf.
"Thanks." (5 second pause) "I think you've got this wrong..." - "Oh, sorry, the price has gone up." ("How dare you! Do you think I don't know how to work this thing?") Some people react as if they have just had their wallet invaded by a small military dictatorship.
"Well, bye! See you tomorrow!" - "Bye!" ("Thanks for the warning!" or "Don't come back!" or "Not if I see you first!")
Not yet mentioned, of course, is "The Greatest Conversational No-Brainer That Exists". This aforementioned sentence requires absolutely no interest in the subject, and no active thought processes on behalf of the poor sap that has to use it. It can be used in most `one-sided' conversations that do not end in a question. All that is required is the simple ability to recall the sentence in times of stress, or in times of severe exhaustion. Are you ready? Here it is...
The Greatest Conversational No-Brainer That Exists is: "Oh. Really?"
Its only drawback is that it has the effect of continuing the conversation! This of course means that repeated use may be necessary. Your only hope of salvation is that whoever you are talking to decides to end the conversation themselves, or if you knock them unconscious.
There may be times when a fat, sweaty old man/pervert/maniac comes into the shop. You will learn quickly that each of the more experienced staff will try to escape from the counter, so that they do not have to serve him, and potentially touch him. This usually leaves one poor quivering wreck behind the counter, waiting in silent dread for their nemesis to arrive and pass on incurable contagious diseases.
The ability to touch, or not to touch a customer has been described by many as an art form, and should be understood, practised, and learned by all serving staff. Bank notes are usually easily dealt with, and can be swiped from the customer's sticky fingers without contact. However, coins can pose more of a problem, due to their reduced size. Practise by holding a coin in one hand, and with the other hand's thumb apply a downward pressure to the near side of the coin's face. This should make the far side of the coin raise, allowing it to be then gripped with the forefinger and thumb. Clever huh? Returning change is far easier than receiving it. Pouring the change into the customer's hand works well, but can quickly turn into a farce if it just rolls out onto the floor and under the freezer. Try arranging the coins into a neat `stack' and then carefully place them into the awaiting hand.
Of course, there may be times that you would actually want to touch a customer, who would usually be a very attractive member of the opposite (or in some cases, same) sex. In this case, the `stab' or `stroke' techniques may be used. Stabbing with a fingernail (which is easier for women to implement) encourages eye contact when profuse apologies are offered. This is considered a considerable risk, and not to be taken by the feint hearted. The easier `stroke' technique is a `just longer than necessary' period of skin contact, which promotes a level of interest, and a large feeling of self-consciousness in the touchee. Be sure not to let go of the change until you are good and ready. This approach often results in a smile, and a `friendlier' atmosphere between touchee and toucher at their next encounter.
The stroke technique can backfire terribly, driving the touchee away for good in a fit of revulsion, usually when he/she believes you to be a fat, sweaty old pervert/maniac/rapist/murderer.
As can be expected, all staff members are, after all, only human, and suffer from the urges and feelings that all other people do. Most staff should be able to recall a time of wanting to laugh, yet knowing that they should not. Laughing examples include seeing someone's fly is open, witnessing a customer's extreme stupidity, or just thinking of something funny to cut through the boredom. Trying not to laugh, with the conscious knowledge that doing so would be unforgivingly embarrassing for whoever is being laughed at, is self-perpetuating, and is a very difficult cycle to break. It is suggested that the urge to laugh can be `toned down' by gently applying pressure though the teeth, to the lower lip. The pain generated by this action, should be enough to cancel out the laughter. However, care must be taken not to puncture the skin, bleed everywhere, and cause customers to faint. Situations may occur that require communication with the `laughee' and biting the lip becomes more of a problem. This may be remedied by clenching the fist, and driving fingernails into the palm of the hand, or by stamping on one's other foot, or thinking about dead loved ones or pets. A less taxing method of `laugh prevention', involves requesting another member of staff to bite your leg under the counter. This may be a problem, if much movement is required, or if the boss wanders over to see what all the commotion is about.
Time behaves strangely in a store environment. This is largely due to the stresses and strains on a worker who has had to deal with one thick customer after another. There are two classifiable types:
This is where time may pass quickly or slowly, depending upon what you are doing. Time may pass quickly if there is a `rush' on, or may slow to a crawl if there's nothing to do except stare at the clock and pick your nose. Time will usually pass very slowly during the last hour before closing time, but this is often attributed to the store manager setting the clock back by remote control.
A common problem among floor staff is lapsing into an unfeeling state of automatic operation. This is caused by your mind shutting down the higher brain functions to prevent insanity, which is usually due to the worker performing repetitive tasks. It is possible for as much as four hours to pass, during which time the unfortunate `automata' may have inadvertently placed soap bars in the sweet section, sold cigarettes to minors, or stood giggling, and dribbling insanely over the meat freezer. The best ways to bring someone out of this state is to lead them into the "staff only" room, and feed them a hot cup of tea and biscuits. The worst way to bring someone out of this state is to club him or her repeatedly with a slab of frozen meat, although this is of course considered obvious.
Basically, the rule here is to obey the boss, immediately, without question, without displaying any signs of displeasure or disagreement, and with a smile on your face. It also usually helps to go and give a chirpy "OK" to indicate understanding, willingness, and to give the boss a bit of a power rush. This rule is null and void however, if the order is to jump under a car, put your head in a mincer, or to do things that you really don't want to do, such as inserting fruits into bodily orifices, personal, or otherwise. If you are extremely busy at the time of asking, the phrase "stick a broom up my arse and I'll sweep the floor as well" is not recommended.
Sometimes the counter staff may be presented with a `hold up' situation. This usually involves one or more large men with socks on their heads, demanding money with an object that looks remarkably like one of the small, metal, gun shaped things that overpaid movie stars often run around with. There is only one effective course of action to take, and that is to GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT before they redecorate the wall paper with an interesting colour called `hints of brain'. Viewers of a certain cartoon series may recognise this helpful bit of `actually being shot at' advice: "Here's a hint, try to take it in the shoulder". Hopefully, you will never need to use this sage advice, because with any luck they will run out without hurting anyone, and then the staff may then continue their life, visiting trauma councillors, and jumping eight feet into the air when they hear a door slam.
Of course, if the perpetrator is not carrying heavy artillery, or armed with slicing implements, then remember some important points if the staff feel like `having a go' :
- I've heard that having a baseball or cricket bat under the counter, specifically for self-defence, may be illegal. Make sure it has a price label on it, so you can say "It was for sale, M'lud".
- Shout to other staff or customers for help (although they are more likely to stand, watch and award points for style and aggression).
- A swift kick to the groin may be all you need to make them drop like a screaming sack of spuds.
- Throw money onto the floor, and as they're trying to pick it up, kick their head in.
- Wrestle them to the ground, hold their arm behind their back and shout "squeeeeeeal little piggy", just for effect.
- Jump onto the counter, naughtily impersonate Bruce Lee by screaming "hii-yaaah", and kick their teeth in.
- Shout out "Great idea, mate!" hand over the cash, and when they are not looking bash them over the head with a tin of baked beans.
- Chase them to the stationary section and wrap them in sticky tape.
- Quickly closing the front doors and then squirting fast-bonding glue on the handles will make escape difficult without ripping all the skin off their fingers.
- Suggest in a deep, menacing voice, to try the shop next door because "they won't rip your arms out of their sockets, and suck your brains out, human".
- Force feeding them dry pasta will expand in their stomachs, so they will be unable to fit through the front doors.
- Pricing guns can be deadly if set to `auto'.
- Viciously, and mercilessly, short-change them.
One of the most important tasks a store worker has to perform is to make sure the shelves are full, and that the packages are facing `out'. The purpose of this is to con the customer into believing that the products are far superior, since the staff have spent so much time making their display so nice. Suckers! They do not realise that a neatly arranged shelf can hold more items than one not as neat. Hence, the shelf does not need to be frequently re-stocked, and therefore it is less work for the staff. It is mind numbingly tedious, and as boring as hell, but hey, you aren't dealing directly with the customers (as described above), so it can't be all that bad.
Always carry a clean handkerchief. Working with a cold can be a very traumatic experience for the customer, as well as the worker. This is especially the case if the customer spies you blowing your nose, and then has to watch in horror as you handle their cucumber. Looks of abject terror, extreme anger and unblinking disbelief are common, as is storming out of the shop, swearing to people that they'll "never return to this goddamn disgusting shop", and generally making your bad day worse. To make you feel better, you may then chase after the aforementioned `lost-sale' and, since they have vowed never to return, scream your grievances at them at the top of your lungs. If unfortunately your shouting capacity is reduced due to your state of health, spray painting your feelings on their car as they drive away is a neat, if tricky, alternative.
With any luck, you will now be half way prepared to work behind the counter. You should be conscious of your external appearance and friendly `persona' to the money brandishing public, and should know your role in the `shopping experience' to eight decimal places. Some store workers can hack the job for sixth months or so, before various mental problems start to kick in. It takes a special kind of person to keep going for as long as the author has, and even more so for the owners of such establishments. This may be attributed to sheer determination, lack of funds, or mindless stupidity. The basic trick is to grit your teeth. If something is going wrong, grin (and grit) and bear it. Try to call for assistance if at all possible, and apologise for your own apparent `stupidity'. Do not begrudge yourself a secret wish that something nasty and painful would fall out of the sky, and bounce off your problem's head with an amusing "boiing" sound.
If all else fails, go find a real job.
|||Warning! This course of action is not recommended. I mean it. Don't do it. You won't be able to forgive yourself. Especially if you're dead. Look, even if the guy is half your size, give it some serious thought. I really mean it!|
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