Grocer X: Fear and loathing in the checkout lane


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The quality of time you spend at the checkout counter can make or break your grocery-shopping experience.

The good times have you whisking to the front of the line, welcomed by the warmest of smiling faces offering a friendly chat — maybe even tipping you off to some additional savings — and getting you back to your car with no remorse for spending vast amounts of money. Consider yourself lucky if this is your usual experience.

The bad times, obviously more notable, have you waiting in long lines snaking haphazardly around the front of the registers as distress calls for “checkout service” ring constant from the overhead speakers. Your mood worsens as you watch the register clerks leaving their posts to check price tags at the other end of the store, and again when the elderly gentleman in front of you realizes he left his wallet in the car, scoots his walker across the floor, and assures everyone he’ll be “really quick.” By the time you’re finally out the door, you’ve sworn to never come back more times than you can count, and told several employees you plan to have them fired, while your expensive cuts of beef sit stewing at room temperature and beads of ice cream run down the sides of the container. Terrible.

Those of us on the other side of the conveyor belt see it little differently. There are hardly any good times for people tapping in hundreds of produce codes and scanning handfuls of crumpled, illegible coupons, but there certainly are plenty of bad times. It should be noted that not everyone working a register loathes the thought of being there; it may be that I’m not what you call a “people person” in the traditional sense.

Take the opening lines from an old journal entry I wrote after a particularly awful day at the register:

Face to face with a six-foot Gila monster, I find myself alone in my predicament and past the point of no return. Lashing its tongue in an unrecognizable dialect and flailing its arms — claws gripping a stack of clipped paper savings — this one is ready for a fight.

Harsh, I know. But the truth is, we never know what kind of monstrosity we’ll have to deal with after handing the receipt over to the last customer.

Of course there are shoppers we all love to see, those friendly, familiar faces asking about our days off and more than willing to talk about anything other than groceries — a shining few — but I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about the jerk holding up the line by adding random items to his order just so he can sneak his way to another gas discount, even though he doesn’t know how the promotion works. I’m talking about the “multi-tasking mom,” cranium-deep in a call on her cell and failing to cognitively answer any of my questions while her children wreak havoc among the candy displays, and to the coupon-issuer starting off the transaction with, “I hope you do this right.” These are the monsters I’m talking about.

It makes sense, I guess, that we checkers suffer some of the most abusive forms of human interaction; we’re essentially just bill collectors. But why is it my fault that all those frozen dinners you bought didn’t net you the free gallon of ice cream they did last week, or that the printed ad you brought along is two weeks old and none of the prices match? I don’t care how long you’ve shopped at the store — we have policies, and those coupons are three months expired. Is it really something to throw a fit about?

If only you could see yourselves, in all your glory, lambasting me over the promotional price of a candy bar, or because we stopped carrying that obscure item that literally no one else but you will buy. Maybe then you’ll recognize the predatory nature of your behavior. Maybe you’ll recognize that 9 times out of 10, the customers, you, are actually wrong, and your reasons for taking it out on me would baffle even the most immature of 5-year-olds.

Believe me, I really do try my best to get you in and out the door as quickly and happily as possible. The last thing I want is to spend more time with the ticking time bombs waiting in my line. But I need your help. Or, no, just some common courtesy.

Looking down the row of faces in my line I see more of them; coldblooded creatures walking upright, talking on cell phones, even handling money. How has it come to this? Who let this happen? This is a grocery store, not a goddamn reptile sanctuary.

Thanks for shopping with us.

— Grocer X

The man behind the apron is Craig Lemley, digital content coordinator here at the Indy. The Colorado Springs native spent nearly a decade working in grocery stores across the Pikes Peak region before retiring his produce knife for a surprisingly less-stressful media career. Follow him on twitter (@_CraigLemley) or send questions/comments to

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