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Wal-Martyred: Glimpsing humanity at America’s superstore

October 31st, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Alison Ostler

“Well, I sure picked the wrong line to get into,” an old man complained, slapping his half-thawed TV dinner onto the checkout counter while giving me a crusty stare.

It was July 24—Pioneer Day—at Walmart, a time of dread and fear for the store’s cashiers and. unfortunately, a day I was scheduled for work. The Utah state holiday brought an onslaught of frustrated last-minute shoppers purchasing huge amounts of hot dogs and fireworks, and lines stretched as far as the eye could see.

It looked like every customer was stocking up on items for the apocalypse: carts were overflowed with everything from charcoal to diapers. Despite my best efforts, I was having trouble keeping the throngs of impatient customers at bay. I could literally feel the glares of everyone in line as they bore their eyes into me. It was enough to make you want to throw your hands into the air and announce, “That’s it! I’m done—go find yourself another cashier!”

Had I known that working as a cashier at one of the busiest Walmart stores in Utah would have come to this, I wouldn’t have taken the job. During training, my supervisors failed to tell me that having up to a dozen people hate you at once was all part of the job.

Walmart is as American as baseball and apple pie. Every American seems to have (or is recovering from) an unhealthy Walmart dependency. The store’s convenience and cheapness appeals to our, well, laziness and cheapness as Americans. We’ve seen and been a part of the huddled masses yearning to buy massive amounts of inexpensive Chinese-made products at rollback prices. Apparently, most of us don’t mind the collective chaos, or we wouldn’t go near Walmart in the first place. But for the guy dressed in blue behind the counter whose job it is to scan and bag those 20 boxes of Ho-Ho’s in your cart, the work experience can be a nightmare.

A problem is the expectation level of some Walmart customers. We want things cheap and fast. We want everything our way. But what some people don’t understand is that it actually takes time to scan and bag groceries (especially when you’re buying things like pesticide, rat poison, and raw chicken, in which case it takes us a second to figure out how to bag everything without poisoning you). And Walmart is not Burger King—you can’t have everything your way. If we ask for identification and you forgot your ID, we won’t let you buy it—even if you yell at us.

And yell they do. It is not unusual to hear a fellow employee taking guff from a screaming customer. Sometimes, the person they’re yelling at was me. As a cashier I had to accept the fact that no matter how hard I tried to be accommodating, some customers could never be pleased. One woman yelled at me for using too many bags for her groceries; when I tried to use fewer bags, the next customer chided me for “mixing the groceries wrong.” If I scanned groceries too fast, they’d tell me to “calm down.” But go too slow, and I would get the death glare and a snarky remark. There really was no safe middle ground.

As each workday slugged by, new scenarios of what could go wrong began to unfold. Each day entailed a new experience that added volumes to my library of life’s ridiculous moments. I discovered that there were a thousand different ways to make a person angry. People could come completely undone over a few dollars difference.

Some veteran Walmart cashiers seem to take these conflicts in stride, but it really bothered me. I talked to a fellow employee about this one day. She said something I’ll never forget. “I know it’s hard,” she told me. “But you have to remember that some people are just sad. They’re just having a hard time with things. It’s not your fault.”

From that moment, I was able to put the job in a different perspective. The lady in my line practically foaming at the mouth, well, maybe she wasn’t mad because of me. The fact of the matter was that you really don’t know what’s going on in a person’s life.

Looking back on my summer, it wasn’t all that bad. Some of the nicest people I have ever met were those that I met at Walmart. There were many points in my work experience where humanity would peek through like a shining ray of hope. But no matter how they treated me, it made a tremendous impact on how I would perform.

If you happen to be at Walmart on Black Friday, that pre-Christmas shopping tradition, remember to be nice to the poor cashier at the front of the line. They might look cheerful enough, but you can bet that they’re feeling the same kind of fear and frustration I felt on the twenty-fourth of July.

A simple smile and a kind word can make a world of difference. Think twice about complaining, because even a Walmart workers has feelings. How you treat them could make or break their day.


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