Apologies to Randal and the entire ViewAskewniverse for the headline.
Working retail, in short, sucks. But so does shopping.
I feel for retail employees, because I was there. I spent the worst part of seven years behind some sort of counter, selling. I had good times, too – I met my wife while we worked at the same store.
Sadly, she had some sort of Stockholm syndrome, and she only got out this winter after 19 years – they had to lay her off (Google “Sears Death Spiral” for over four thousand reasons why) to get her out of the store.
Anyhow, we’ve both seen the worst of humanity, and the worst of inane company policies that make us long for the day that our former colleagues get replaced by robots.
We were running late.
Not the kind of late that I neurotically self-impose, as ingrained by my father, he of the “if you’re early you’re on time; if you’re on time you’re late” variety. We needed to have the eldest across the suburb at 5:15 to warm up for a 6pm softball game, and without stops, we’d be there about two minutes early.
But, because of the youngest’s game earlier that day, our icemaker was empty, and the kid was going to be thirsty playing a humid doubleheader. So I pulled the minivan into the conveniently-located convenience store for a bag of ice, and a few bottles of sugar water.
As I strode quickly to the back of the store, I noticed a grey-haired gentleman at the register, with his Costanza-esque wallet splayed on the counter, pocket detritus surrounding a single tallboy of Coors Light.
After grabbing some Gatorade, I took my place in line to witness the unfolding drama.
Retail workers are some of the worst-paid, worst treated employees in America. No, they generally don’t face the likelihood of crippling injuries or death witnessed in factories or coal mines, but retail workers still face an uncertain future.
The Atlantic looked into this situation a few months ago, and found that department stores alone had cut over 100,000 jobs in the prior six months.
One hundred thousand jobs.
As the article states, that’s “more than the total number of coal miners or steel workers currently employed in the US.”
But, because the job losses are spread rather evenly across the country, and because the jobs lost are increasingly held by minorities and women, the cuts don’t get noticed by politicians.
I’m not saying that some Senator can fix all of this with a bill, propping up the local Kwik-E-Mart with a “Buy Local Junk Food” pledge. I’m just pointing out the difficulties that retail workers face, and the equal challenges faced by the retailers.
No, those big heartless, faceless corporations aren’t cutting jobs because they want to hurt people. Overall, retailers want families to be employed, so they continue to have money to buy things at their stores. But decreased margins and increased competition have made these retailers look for any possible way to cut back.
There were two employees working the pair of cash registers. One was a young man, likely around 21 years old, and seemingly dealing with a physical and/or behavioral impairment.
To be clear, I’m not judging, and I’m not qualified to say what condition he may have had. I’m just noting this because, in my experience, this young man may not have had the wherewithal to make certain assumptions based on physical cues.
The other clerk was a manager of some sort, but I’d wager his age was roughly 25. I ended up in the manager’s line, while the younger clerk dealt with the silver-haired Silver Bullet drinker.
It seems the cashier had asked this gentleman for proof of age, thus the hastily-exploded wallet. Oh, and the increasing volume of obscenities from a man who just wanted a beer.
Working at a twenty-four-hour convenience store has to be one of the most draining forms of retail employment. The pay is awful. The boredom is epic. And yet, the stress of dealing with:
Entitled assholes who just want their coffee;
Those who can’t seem to decide whether they want the hard pack or the soft pack of cigarettes;
And those youngsters who try and weasel a sixer of Zima out from under your nose.
It has to be a great deal of pressure for something approaching minimum wage.
Those underage buyers are a big problem. After all, you – as a cashier making less than ten bucks an hour – can face up to $1000 in fines, and six months in prison – just for selling a beer to a 19-year-old. That’s over a month’s worth of wages, plus six months you won’t be making anything but license plates, just because someone tried to slip a fake ID past you.
That fine and jail time is for Ohio. Other states may vary.
The retailer has further incentive to disallow underage sales, too. Any underage sale can trigger an investigation by the Division of Liquor Control (again, Ohio), and that store could lose their license to sell.
Thus many retailers have implemented strict policies that require an ID check. Some include scans of the ID, so wily cashiers can’t plug in a dummy birthdate for their buddies. I’m guessing that’s what happened here in our saga.
The young cashier was flustered. The customer, screaming. The manager, who should have been ringing up my purchase, was instead engaged with the gentleman who just wanted his rocky mountain cold refreshment.
Of course, the price of the beer had recently been raised to $1.05, rather than a dollar, so the customer had to dig for additional change to cover the new price and tax. This apparently enraged him beyond the indignity of being carded.
The manager was getting testy, but continued to attempt a civil discussion with the man while ignoring me – telling him that it’s “corporate policy” to require identification for everyone attempting to purchase alcohol.
The customer threw the additional change at the helpless cashier, and started challenging the manager with nonsensical arguments.
“I’M SIXTY NINE YEARS OLD. I WAS IN VIETNAM! WHAT DID YOU DO IN VIETNAM?”
He continued to bellow these irrelevant statements, randomly – but not artfully – punctuated with obscenities, as he stormed out of the store. I’m not certain, but I think I saw him pop the top of the can as he climbed into his car.
I’m not going to get too deep into the #Fightfor15, the movement to increase the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. Like any divisive issue, there are arguments for and against the measure. While certainly some people will indeed benefit from a higher wage, I have to believe that automation will eliminate so many low-skill and low-paying jobs that most wage earners wouldn’t see any benefit to a significant artificial increase to the cost of labor.
Imagine our scenario – how would Mr. I WAS IN VIETNAM deal with an automated cashier?
I know that I could certainly handle it, but I was born in the late ‘70s, and came of age at the beginning of the internet era. I’m an introvert, too – so I actually prefer the self-scan lanes at the grocery, rather than facing another interaction with a human.
Those self-scan lanes typically have a supervisor on call, to check identification on any scanned item that requires it, including alcohol.
Someday soon, we may encounter technology that no longer needs human interaction to verify age. Our beer-drinking vet will have to adapt, or be left behind without refreshment.
Who was right in this situation? Should the obvious age have been enough to let the gentleman go without identification? Or must the clerk – and his employer – hold firm to policies meant to keep the employee out of jail?
My kids, eight and eleven, witnessed the end of this exchange as our friendly customer carried his shouting to the parking lot. I emerged shortly thereafter, and tossed the drinks and ice into the cooler. Several people, including my entire family, asked what had happened, and naturally I gave a brief synopsis.
After all this? We made it, after a bit of assertive driving, to the softball field with a minute to spare.
Lead image By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons