Most of us have worked in retail at some point in our lives. Even if just for that one summer in high school, many of us have been subjected to the whims of the public. And for the sake of bluntly stating the obvious, let me just sum up what everyone is thinking: it’s hell sometimes. You barely get paid and managers have a tendency to stretch the limits of what can be accomplished in six hours on minimum wage to absurd proportions. And there are plenty of customers who expect much more from you than you previously believed to be included within your job description.
Working in a bookstore is no different. After four years of experience, people are constantly surprising—and dismaying—me.
So whether you work in retail and can commiserate, or have somehow made it through life without working with the public and need an idea of what is and isn’t acceptable, this list is for you.
Let’s get started!
1. Cell Phones
Okay look. I’m a part of this century, I promise. Hell, plenty of Disney movies are older than me. But when I’m checking someone out and they halt the transaction to answer their phone and then somehow expect me to help them through it wordlessly, I draw the line.
Within this category alone, there are several subsections, but we’ll focus on two. First, you have the people who come up to checkout already in full conversation mode. For whatever reason, this is the best scenario most of the time. It sets the expectations of the transaction: you don’t want to talk to me and I won’t be talking to you since my mother raised me not to interrupt other people’s conversations. In these cases, I move through the transaction robotically and usually with a clever series of hand gestures (no, not that one). I can direct the customer on when to insert their card, that they have to press “OK” on the pin pad, and if they want a bag almost wordlessly. In these scenarios, the customer sometimes has the grace to appear relieved that I bared with them through the obstacle that is their cell phone. Much of the time, however, I’ll get a frustrated customer who finally puts down her phone so she can look at me, as if for the first time, and insists it’s my fault she has a membership she didn’t use.
The other big subsection here—and the one that’s really deadly to my emotional health—is when the customer accepts a call in the middle of the transaction. It’s especially upsetting because perhaps up until that point I thought you were a sweet old lady who considered me a human being worth your time and consideration. Perhaps we were having a lovely chat about how you were purchasing the book for your grandchild. But then you get a call right as you swipe your card (and before I can tell you it only takes the chip) and begin loudly talking about how you’re in the middle of Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million or wherever because this has to be universal, it can’t just be me, can it?
Anyway, before you took that call, I had hopes and dreams of getting through this shift without having to hear you yell into your receiver and stare off into the distance like it isn’t every single pin pad that asks you a million questions before you can leave. These are the situations where my vindictive streak tends to bubble to the surface. Unlike with the other subsection, in this instance, my clever little hand signals melt away into the abyss, along with my respect for you. I will calmly wait for you to either finish your call so I can tell you that while you were busy, your card swipe didn’t work OR I will wait until you realize you haven’t seen the receipt and you’ve been standing an embarrassingly long time in this line, at which point you’ll usually lower your phone and ask what’s taking so long. I’ll smile my special Customer Service smile and point to the pin pad, “It only takes the chip.”
It’s not a perfect system.
2. Interrupting Pitches
All I truly desire is another cup of coffee and to be treated like a human being.
I get it. No one wants to be sold anything. We want to stumble upon something, realize it’s for us in our own time, and then buy it at a discounted price, if possible. Especially at a bookstore. I mean come on, it’s the refuge, the intellectual haven, the magical land of possibility that many of us flock to. We don’t want to be held up from our next read by some chick with a pixie cut asking if we want to save 10% today.
Except this chick with a pixie cut gets paid to tell you how you can save 10% today; she has to tell you about the membership or she gets in trouble. So at least let me get all the way through asking you if you’re already a member before you cut me off with “No.” Because if you haven’t been on the receiving end of someone disregarding wholeheartedly what you have to say, you probably don’t realize that it’s wildly frustrating. It might even make that girl with the pixie stare you down while she tells you about the membership in great detail because your curt interruption really made her think you were interested. At the very least it will insult her so that the rest of the transaction is not nearly as sunny as she had originally hoped it would be.
So just pretend the person behind the counter is a person with thoughts in their mind and words in their mouth. Please.
3. Holding up the Line
There are as many different reasons for this as there are people in the world. Most recently, I had a woman who wanted me to scan her items, her membership, and two coupons so she could see the final total because if it was low enough, she was going to go ahead and get that last book which she had left back on a shelf. There were several people in line behind her and she ran off before I could tell her that I’d need to suspend her transaction so I could help the people who had their items prepared. Have you ever tried to avoid ten gazes at once? It’s super awkward. If you’re ever not sure about whether you want to get a book, and you want to decide at the register, just bring it with you. Booksellers know the store or they know someone who does. We’d be happy to put it back for you. Prefer it, even.
Another time, a woman had me ring up maybe ten items for about $100, then she had me void two of them, then she stopped in the middle of the transaction to wander over to the Godiva stand five feet away, made a selection, brought it back, set it on the counter, changed her mind, and selected three chocolate bars from the display at the register and bought those instead. She came back five minutes later, had me return the chocolate bars and swap them for the much more expensive chocolate kit she had first thought of getting. She even said the words “Just to make life difficult” at one point, as if she were joking with me about how she knew she was being ridiculous. My eye wouldn’t stop twitching until she left the store.
Just keep in mind that you’re probably not the only person trying to check out (and if you are, hurrah! You checked to make sure, right?). Just be considerate because the longer you take, the more likely it is that someone behind you will become impatient with the cashier, who is just trying to make everyone happy.
This person typically goes into bookstores, grabs hordes of books and magazines from the shelves, then huddles in a corner for hours flipping through everything, but doesn’t buy any of it. This type of customer usually leaves their stack in that corner for booksellers to find later. This happens a lot in Café, but Café is a small, open area that can be reasonably checked several times before the end of the night. What gives booksellers existential dread, though, is finding stacks of books after we’ve closed the store.
A few weeks ago, we closed the store and it had been a busy night so we were all running around, trying to put everything right again (which already included several books that needed to be put back on the shelves) when someone discovered, buried deep within the confines of the Kid’s Department, two shopping baskets full of books. It added at least another half an hour to the closing process because everyone had their tasks and I was the main one putting books back (yay me!).
So if you are this customer, or you know one who is, PLEASE just take the towering stack to Customer Service before you leave our store. We don’t expect you to know where everything you grabbed goes and—trust us—we know it’s daunting to try sometimes. But luckily we have experience and little machines that beep to tell us where everything goes. And if you’re worried about telling a bookseller of your offensive stack because of the inevitable loss of respect for humanity as a whole they will undergo, I can promise you they will welcome the stack with open arms because they know, deep, deep down they would have found it themselves at some point.
And it would have destroyed them.
5. Swiping Prematurely
This actually goes hand-in-hand with “Interrupting Pitches” because it is a tactic to cut the transaction short and, in effect, tell the cashier she isn’t worth your time. Whether it’s swiping your plastic before I’ve finished even scanning your items, or while I’m telling you about the membership, I can go ahead and promise you, you will be unsuccessful until I press a button on my end and a blue light starts flashing on yours. And, on top of that, we only take the chip if you have it, which most likely you do, so it’s doubly doing nothing by rudely rushing me.
I know we all have some place we would rather be than standing in line at checkout. You know where I would rather be than standing for seven hours straight, dealing with people who often don’t register that I’m human? Spending time with my husband, playing with my new cat, walking along one of the many beaches in Hawaii, discovering new eateries that change my world. Literally so many things that I didn’t even need satire there.
Also, just for the record, it’s always the green button that means “okay.” Green is pretty universal for “Yes, this transaction is right!” and red is pretty universal for “No, let me cancel, NOW!” I’m constantly amazed at how confused people are by this.
Now this is pretty broad, but let me clarify. The first type of customer who falls under this umbrella, for me, is the kind that will walk past the bathroom to find you where you’re working on the floor, to ask you where the bathroom is. Just… just use your eyes, though.
Another thing I got a lot for some reason when I worked at BAM in Alabama, was people asking me if I worked at the store as a way to introduce that they needed help looking for something. In these scenarios I can promise you I was both a) wearing a lanyard that quite clearly answered any guesswork for them, and b) carrying a stack of books, actively straightening, scanning, re-pyramiding tables, or literally doing anything that only someone who worked there would do. So the question, which is quite obviously useless, always irked me. The only thing I can figure is it’s some sort of pointless nicety to break the ice with the person who’s about to help you. But I got it so much and at such ridiculous times that it would almost always just make me grumpy.
I’m also not a big fan of people coming up to me, shoving an item in my face, and asking me the price. Nine times out of ten, the person did not bother to look and they want me to scan it for them. Instead, I will look to the barcode (or the inside flap, as is the case with hardback books) and read it to them. There are items, yes, that somehow make it through processing and wind up on shelves without a price, but it’s actually very rare. So please just pay attention. Booksellers would so much rather talk to you about what you’re reading and what you are looking at reading next, rather than hold your hand and help you use your perfectly good eyes.
Oh boy. Perhaps the most touchy subject in the seven realms. Everyone wants their money and no one wants to lose anything they don’t have to. But sometimes things just get ridiculous.
Y’all, I have an English degree. And I like to think that means something—mainly, that I’m inherently bad at math. Now that’s not a hard and fast rule, obviously, but English majors in general are going to be able to give long speeches about existentialism and what the value of the dollar really means in the long run before we’re going to calculate your change without the help of a computer.
That being said, don’t be the person that waits until after I’ve told the register you gave me $40.00 and then hand me two nickels and six pennies. I don’t know what to do with that. I had a grandmother, in front of her grandchild at Christmastime, yell at me in Alabama because I wouldn’t accept her change after I had already input her cash. She literally yelled at me because she had to hang on to her change. Just tell me you’re looking for change and I’ll wait. We’ll both leave with our dignity.
Coupons. Oh my. Please read the fine print, because there will be things in the store that don’t qualify for your 20% off. Oftentimes these exceptions will include magazines or textbooks or Nook devices. I had a man come through on my second day at Barnes & Noble (I later found out he’s notorious for being rude to cashiers) and he had two items and a coupon. One of the items was much more expensive than the other and the coupon is supposed to automatically apply to the most expensive item. As soon as the transaction was finished, he looked at his receipt and began berating me for not having applied the coupon to the more expensive item.
Worried that I had messed up on my second shift, I called a manager and she looked over his receipt and regretfully told him she could return the items, but the coupon would have been invalidated once used. He began yelling at me that I should have caught the mistake, and why didn’t I pay attention because how could he want to use the coupon on the item that was less than ten dollars? The manager then, tight-lipped, examined the coupon and discovered that the expensive item happened to be excluded from the coupon. The man didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Just read your coupons, please. And have just a little patience and understanding.
In conclusion, just try to have respect for other people, especially when they’re providing you with a service. No one wants to get yelled at by a stranger because they helped them the wrong way. The person behind the counter is just trying to have a good day and, believe it or not, what you say to them genuinely has an effect on their mood, at least for a little while.
So spread a little love, guys. Or at least be understanding when things don’t go your way.
Thanks for reading,