After seven years of cashiering at two different grocery stores (Greenlife/Whole Foods and now Earth Fare), I really do believe that – at my best – I am a very good, sometimes inspired, cashier. But I’m sure not always at my best. At my worst, I suck.
I am learning again and again that it really doesn’t support me to show up for work tired or depressed – or, like today, tired and depressed. Tired I have some control over: it usually really is possible to get to bed at a reasonable hour the night before I work. Depressed I have less control over – especially as someone with bipolar disorder whose bipolar process is currently pretty out-of-control.
Cashiering in a grocery store (and probably other kinds of stores, but this is the kind of store I know best) is very demanding work. My buddy Tom Kilby in the Grocery Department – who has been working in grocery stores for a lot longer than I – believes it is the hardest job in the store.
You do very repetitive work, which does not necessarily support your creative energies – but you need to be creative anyway. To do it really well, you need to be “on” – you need to fully show up, as much as this is possible, for one person after another, standing mostly in the same spot, for however many hours your shift lasts. You need to not just be friendly, but if you want to provide a world-class experience for your customer, you need to be really interested in them. To the extent that your line allows, you want them to feel really greeted, really welcome, really valued.
When I am tired or depressed, I just don’t feel like doing all that – and sometimes I just don’t. But, ironically, what I keep finding is that this kind of connection with my customer is the most powerful antidote to exhaustion and maybe especially to depression. If I reach down deep and pull up the energy to make really good contact with my customer, I feel better – sometimes, surprisingly, really good.
This actually should not be surprising. We are social beings. We crave contact with others of our species. Really connecting with our customers can be very satisfying. We obviously can’t do it equally well with all of our customers – one after another after another. Even when I am on a roll, I will observe myself maybe having great contact with one customer – then just kind of cruising with the next. And sometimes the customer doesn’t want contact with us: they are preoccupied with something else or they have four more errands to run and they just want to get the hell out of here.
We also crave the experience of competence, of skill. If we are aiming for really rich connection with customers, there is no limit to how much we can grow this skill. I’m 73 years old, have 35 years of experience doing customer service in a professional setting and now 15 years in various front-line customer service settings (Working Hard for the Money) – and it feels like only now am I really catching my stride and like there is no limit as to how much better I can get.
Cashiering can sometimes seem like a kind of menial job, but it really is nothing like that. At it’s best – when we really throw ourselves into it – it is an art, a dance. Otherwise we’re just swiping groceries, for relatively low pay. That is just not a good deal.