A disturbing trend is happening for people like me, people who majored in mass communication, not one-on-one communication. Small talk is difficult enough for me. I stammer, my palms sweat, and I say stupid things. But lately, my interactions with cashiers have become even more torturous. In fact, the problem has put a dent in my shopping habits for anything that isn’t online.
There was a time not long ago when a customer could shop for her selections, go to the checkout counter and pay without much hassle. (Well, other than my husband monitoring the online bank account and texting me with urgent messages like, “Stop spending money!”)
Back then, I got over my nervousness about small talk and even learned how to chitchat with the salesperson without coming across as severely awkward. We’d talk about my purchases, the weather, the traffic. We’d make eye contact and smile at one another.
Beginning a few years ago, however, encounters started to go more like this:
Me (placing my items on the counter): “Will the snow ever end?”
Cashier (without making eye contact): “Probably not. Will you be using your [store name] credit card today?
Cashier: “Do you have a [store name] credit card?”
Me: “No, and I don’t —“
Cashier: “Did you know if you open one today, you can save 10 percent on your total purchase now and 5 percent on every purchase in the future.”
Me (mulling over the fact that 5 percent amounts to, basically, the tax): “No, I really don’t —“
Cashier: “And card members also receive special discounts and advance notification of sales.”
Me (digging in my purse for my wallet; definitely not making eye contact): “No, I don’t need —“
Cashier: “Okay, but if you opened a card today you’d be saving $5 on this purchase today.”
Me (feeling cornered and uncomfortable): “I’m not getting a credit card.”
Cashier (with a new tone that reveals her disapproval): “OK. So, if you just type in your email address into the keypad, I can give you your total.”
Me (feeling like my purchase is now being held hostage): “I don’t want to give my email address.”
Cashier (clearly thinks I’m a loser now): “Do you have a rewards card?”
By this point, all I want to do is buy my assortment of linens, macaroni and cheese and new socks for the boys. I don’t want to give anyone my email address, phone number, mailing address, social security number, blood type, medical history or maternal grandmother’s name. I just want to buy my things and get out.
But we can’t blame the employee. He or she has simply been instructed to repeat this script to every customer who comes to the counter. He or she didn’t make the rules.
In the history of running a business, there has been no worse decision made than that of forcing part-time employees to harass paying customers for their personal information. There are some stores I simply refuse to go into because I feel like I need to send an SOS to the outside world to help get me out: “Help! Does anyone have a [store name] credit card I can borrow? Apparently I can’t leave [store name] without one.”
Even stores that don’t have credit cards have jumped on this trend. At the local drugstore, I have to give my phone number in order to save 25-cents on my bottle of water. I never can remember which phone number I used when I foolishly signed up for this “benefit,” so the process is painfully long and embarrassing:
Cashier: “That number didn’t work.”
Me (typing again): “Oops. Maybe it’s this one.”
Cashier: “That number didn’t work either.”
Me (aware that people behind me probably think I’m just guessing at numbers now): “Oh, maybe I used my cellphone number. No —”
What I want to say: “How about you give me the price this water should be with or without my phone number?”
What I say instead: “I’ll just pay the extra 25 cents.”
A few years ago, I said I wasn’t going to shop at any store that only gave me the “right price” if I gave them my telephone number first. That worked for awhile. But today, those stores are a dying breed. I feel like I need a background in debate in order to buy a new pair of jeans.
Then last month, I was shopping at a department store for a pair of earrings. The salesperson helped me find just the right thing, and by the end, I knew he was engaged to be married, and he knew I had three boys. When it was time to pay, he took my earrings and debit card, rang my transaction, and gave me everything back in one seamless motion. It was so easy, so pleasant.
I will shop here forever, I thought.
“Thank you for not harassing me to open a credit card,” I told the man before I left. “I really appreciate it. This was a great experience.”
He smiled sheepishly and leaned over the counter to whisper out the corner of his mouth, “Technically, I was supposed to get you to open a card. Don’t tell my boss, OK?”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.