One could say there are three scenarios that dominate the role-playing world of little girls. The first is undoubtedly house – I can distinctly remember shouting, “Let’s play house!” to my sister/cousins/friends/playmate-of-the-day, divvying out role assignments – mother (usually myself, of course), daughter, baby, annoying aunt who never visits, and father if we managed to rope my brother in. Secondly, no girl grows up without playing school. Whoever was lucky enough to be the teacher would drag out the bulky blue Fisher-Price chalkboard with the blackboard that didn’t even really let you write on it with chalk. The rest of us would sit on the floor (okay, who am I kidding? I always made myself teacher as well…) while the teacher read aloud or handed out made-up tests or quizzed us from math flash cards. Then, of course, is store, where you’d pull out the calculator and note pad and Monopoly money (or a proper plastic cash register, if you had good enough parents) and scrounge together items for sale. [A variation on store is town, whereby each individual involved sets up shop and you take turns giving patronage to each ‘establishment.’]
So as you can see, with all my experience behind that plastic cash register, I grew up with a sort of fascination with the role of a checkout operator at the grocery store, and nothing would make me happier than when the bagger had disappeared and I could help bag our groceries. That might explain the weird level of excitement I felt on the first day of starting work at Premier Taste, a chain of locally owned and operated supermarkets on the South Island of New Zealand. I went in early on my first day (which wasn’t an issue given that it’s located a miraculous one-minute walk from my flat) to pick up my uniform. The total hideousness of my uniform only mildly tempered my excitement – black pleated, waist-high pants reminiscent of private school uniforms, a royal blue collared shirt that’s royally designed like a box, and a massive – and I repeat, massive – black polar fleece guaranteed to make me appear 3x my size. The whole get-up eliminates any curve or veritable sense of style whatsoever. But my name badge? Possibly the only cool thing about getting dressed for work.
Unisex uniform or not, I was officially beginning my life as a checkout chick, as the cashiers are so lovingly referred to in New Zealand (tells you something about the gender-specific tendencies of the role, eh?), and I was so looking forward to it. The first hour of my inaugural shift was spent on a tour of the store, which besides a look at the facilities available to staff, included your typical “All canned items can be found on aisle 4” sort of jargon. I learned some important details for the job, such as the fact that broccoli and avocados are charged by quantity, onions and kumara by weight, and red peppers (or capsicum, in Kiwispeak) could be either, depending on the week and stock level. The next hour was spent on the actual tills (another word for cash register) with a trainer there to help me through my first transactions.
After a while, though, I turned around and realized I was on my own. Well, here we go…this is it! A supervisor comes up and says that the other new girl and I are doing very well for our first day, keeping up with the ridiculous influx of skiers and boarders just off the slopes. And you know the absolutely hysterical thing? I cared. It mattered to me to hear him say that. I wanted to do well and was embarrassed when I needed his help to fix a mistake. There’s got to be something seriously wrong with me. As the days went on, the novelty of the job had yet to wan. As much as I wanted to wear that bored, disaffected look, smacking on my gum and staring at the TV instead of talking to customers, I just couldn’t fake it. I was loving it too much.
At Premier Taste, I’m essentially paid to talk to people. Of course there’s remembering all the produce codes and ensuring all frozen items are bagged together, but at the heart of the job, I just get to have conversations with each customer that comes through my lane. The majority of the shoppers are tourists, so there’s no end to the potential questions – where are they from, how long are they here for, what have they done in Queenstown so far, how were the slopes today, etc… In the off-chance you get a born-and-bred local, there’s a whole other side to the questions and you hear about the time long before Premier Taste ever opened and there was only the 24-hour convenience store in town. And then there are the in-betweeners, much like myself, only here for the season – not quite tourists, but not quite locals either. When customers hear my accent, that opens up the conversation as well, especially when they ask my favorite question – “Well, now you’re a long way from home, aren’t you?” We share stories, travel tips, advice about where to go in Queenstown and where to go in our respective home countries. It’s quite the bonding experience, really. One of the other girls was helping me bag one day and said, “You don’t have to be so nice to everyone, you know, they don’t deserve it.” And yes, I know that, but it’s all part of chain reactions and paying it forward. If they leave the store with a smile on their face or if I’ve helped make their day that much smoother, I can go home happy.
If there is a “stressful” aspect of the job – and I say it like that only because this “stress” pales in comparison to other jobs I’ve held previously – it’d have to be checking ID for alcohol purchases. Premier Taste has a couple of funny policies – one is that we have to ID any customer who looks under 25. The other – and this is the real kicker – is that acceptable forms of ID only include New Zealand driver’s licenses or a passport (well, also a NZ 18+ Hospitality card, but I think I’ve had a total of about three customers have one so far). That means we can’t accept driver’s licenses from any other country – much to the chagrin of our customers. It makes sense to a degree, given that if we sell alcohol to a minor – knowingly or unknowingly – the checkout operator is fined $2,000, the supervisor $10,000, and the store can lose their liquor license. Ouch. BUT, it also has the unfortunate consequence of me pissing off at least one embittered customer a day. And they’re usually Aussies, who glare at me saying, “What do you mean you won’t accept my license? I can drive with it here.” I then of course flush the color of the tomatoes they’ve also just bought and try to pleasantly explain, “I do understand, but I as well can drive with my license but can’t use it to buy alcohol either. You’ll have to come back with your passport.” Which is exactly what they want to hear after you’ve removed their twenty-four pack of Speight’s or two bottles of Shiraz from the conveyor belt. I’ve also resigned myself to being a terrible judge of age. I’ve so far IDed people well into their thirties and just barely decided to ID someone only to find out they’ve just turned 18. Well done, Candace, well done.
A friend from home, after finding out about my new employment, sent me the link to an article on NPR titled “‘Checkout Girl’ Anna Sam Cashes in with Bestselling Memoir.” A French literature student who ended up working in a supermarket for five years after graduation due to a lack of job opportunities, she went from tenured cashier to bestselling international author with the publication of one book – talk about a catapulted lifestyle change. I haven’t read the memoir yet, Checkout: A Life on the Tills, but a quote from Sam in the article couldn’t describe my new life any better:
“It’s a job where you see every people; it’s a job where no one sees you. You see families very happy, families very sad; people are very nice; people are very bad. And at the end of your day, you say, ‘Oh my god, I’m happy because I have a normal life; I’m better than I thought.’”
The best example of that final thought would have to be when last week, a girl my age ate a muffin, walked out without paying for it, was promptly arrested and issued a $400 fine. Besides questioning her decision to save a buck or two, I was immensely grateful for a job that not only gives me a 5% discount on food (including our famous Texas muffins), but will hopefully never let me reach that point of desperation.