There’s a revolution happening in retail. Store clerks are getting chatty.
No offense to convenience store workers, who are swell people, but I actually liked it better when some of you were glued to your cellphones.
I first noticed this chat-up-the-customer phenomenon back in football season when a cashier at my neighborhood convenience store saw my Steelers cap and decided to share some pithy NFL commentary.
After about two minutes of musings about the Steelers, whom she clearly knew nothing about, she hit me with this stunning thought: “My two favorite teams are the Steelers and the Cowboys.”
“You need to pick one,” I muttered sarcastically, interrupting her monologue.
“What do you mean, I need to pick one?” she said.
“Ma’am, there’s no such thing as a Steelers-Cowboys fan,” I said. “It’s like saying your two favorite soft drinks are Coke and Pepsi. People will think you’re silly.”
“Whaa?” she said, a blank look on her face.
Realizing that I had been sucked into a conversational vortex, I grabbed my beef jerky and receipt and bolted out the door.
As a shy person, I do not like being engaged in small talk by strangers. It’s a character flaw, yes, but that’s just the way it is.
There is a particular sales associate at my local superstore who has showered me with unsolicited information about her college career. She told me while swiping my yogurt that she attends Tennessee Temple University, that she has classes clustered on Tuesdays and Thursdays and that she wants to be a schoolteacher. She told me all this again on my next visit. Both times I have congratulated her and wished her well, but I’m afraid if she does it a third time I will have to say some smarty-pants words.
All this was rumbling through my mind last Sunday, when I was checking out, again, at my local superstore. I avoided my young student-teacher for a male checkout clerk, who I assumed would observe the man code and speak only when spoken to.
I was wrong.
Halfway through the checkout, he lifted my 48-ounce canister of Metamucil powder (orange flavored, smooth texture) up to his eye level, and asked, in a booming voice that could be heard 30 feet in every direction: “What the heck is this!”
It was the voice that you’d use if you thought you had just discovered a dead body in your bedroom closet.
My eyes widened. “Is this really happening?” I thought.
Just at that moment, my clerk answered his own question.
“Oh, it’s some sort of fiber stuff, right?” he said to all the customers who had turned in his direction. “I don’t eat much fiber,” he said.
I’ll alert the media, I thought.
The superstore is run by the smartest business people in the world. I know their clerks are schooled in customer service. But there’s a fine line between being nice and being a nuisance.
Especially when it involves timid souls like me who are actually fond of being ignored.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...