“WHAT’S SO INTERESTING ABOUT WORKING AS A CASHIER?”
A high school friend shot back the pragmatic response when I giddily revealed my plan to write a book about my first job after college. It was a good question.
I thought about it and said, “The public should know what I learned.”
Working at Trader Joe’s was a lot like school. After working at Store 501 for a year I asked myself, if everything that went on at the store could be put into a kind of class syllabus, what were the important lessons?
Here’s what CHECK OUT SCHOOL taught me.
#1 FOOD DOESN’T MAGICALLY APPEAR ON THE SHELF
Before CHECK OUT SCHOOL, I didn’t give food much thought beyond my own fridge. I went to the store, (usually Trader Joe’s because I had a crush on a guy who worked there), and tried to stick to my list: bagged spinach, canned black beans, a six pack of eggs, brown rice, firm tofu, a red pepper, garlic hummus, a couple of green apples, and if I felt strong enough to bike home with it on my back, a carton of almond milk. It’s not like I had to stop in the school quad to gather acorns and bitter greens. I didn’t have to milk a cow to make my tea the way I liked it in the morning. Food was readily available to me and the range of options were enormous. I could predict what I’d find on the store shelf and that it would be of good quality. I used to take this automatic supply of food for granted. An entirely hidden, complex system uses up lots of energy and man power just to keep us alive. Keeping the shelves stocked required a constant effort, especially in Store 501, the third busiest Trader Joe’s in the country.
After my first day working at Trader Joe’s, the third wall was broken down. I wasn’t just seeing the store through a customer’s lense. The products on the shelf weren’t food, they were units. To a crew member, a tub of hummus is not a tub of hummus. It’s a brick among many other bricks building a daily fortress of full shelves to stave off the hungry masses.
On busy Saturdays and Sundays, Shaun sat in the dark end of the box on an overturned milk crate, loading jugs and cartons as fast as he could to keep up with business. He looked out at the customers’ hands and arms there to undo his work. Without consistent effort, the shelves would be empty by late afternoon and the store would look post-apocalyptic by closing time. As a CHECK OUT PERSON, it’s easy to imagine food running out. Trader Joe’s is a part of a giant, complicated web of infrastructure. What if all of that were rendered dysfunctional?
CHECK OUT SCHOOL made me understand that food is precious, even if we don’t really treat it as such.
#2 SPOILS SUCK
CHECK OUT PEOPLE put the food on the shelf. Customers take it off the shelf. They put it in a cart, then put it on a belt, and into a bag, then into the car, and finally back onto a shelf in their kitchens. But what if the food never makes it off the store shelf in the first place?
Sure, working in the store was hectic. But spoils caused a different kind of stress for a lot of us. It was stress on the conscience. I don’t remember too many conversations about spoils. That topic sort of ran under the surface. One thing is for sure, the spoils piled up fast, both because there were so many to process, and because it feels crappy to throw good food away. No one ever volunteered to run spoils. As I scanned each unit into a tracking program, I envisioned burning mountains of trash, melting glaciers, or an albatross choking on a hunk of sushi packaging. When food rots in a landfill, it lets off methane gasses even more potent than CO2. According to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, grocery stores lost 43 billion pounds of food to “spoiling” it in 2008. (1)
I flinched when I considered all of the carbon emissions wasted to get this food to our store. I shuddered to think about the animals bred and killed just to get discarded, the water and grain used to raise them, and the land reserved to grow that feed. Not to mention the petroleum and water used to manufacture the packaging. Every night, each section ran their own spoils. In a typical night of doing spoils for my section, I’d haul about five or six trash bags to the dumpster outside, and that was just one section out of eight others.
I thought about all of the world’s starving people, including those in our own city of Boston.
By now I’m sure you’re wondering, “But what about all of those donations Lance organized? Why didn’t the spoils get sent to a soup kitchen or something?”
The short answer is that we didn’t have the resources: we didn’t have time to set them aside, room in the Box to store all of it, and we didn’t always have someone to pick them up. That’s why most of the stuff we donated was bread and deserts. It doesn’t need refrigeration, its light, and its desirable to the soup kitchens.
And its not like we were worried about getting sued for giving away unsafe food. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. It protects food donors against liability for any harm done to recipients of free food. The act was written in reaction to all of the potential food donors who were too afraid of being sued for serving “spoiled” food. (2)
#3 STATISTICS WRITE THEMSELVES
Pulling and processing spoils was a physical indicator of exactly how much we were contributing to the landfill. That went for every task that made my eco-conscious neck itch. Spending eight hours a day stocking shelves, pulling spoils, and packing groceries was like seeing grocery industry statistics write themselves. It made me feel at once like I could change what was wrong, and at the same time, trapped in a role I had committed to. And, by the way, there were plenty of people who would gladly take my job if I decided it was all too much to take.
The use of paper and plastic bags was out of my control, yet I facilitated that waste by packing them. Making the same motions: dragging gallons of milk past the register scanner, bending over to grab products from the bottoms of carts, packing bags as fast as you can, then lifting them into carts is a good workout, but it can be exhausting, throw your body out of balance, and even cause injuries. If you only observe the routine while you wait in line to check out, it probably looks easy. It’s the repetition that wears us down. And its that repetition that really drives those numbers home. 42 percent of the trees cut down yearly are used for paper. Some of it comes from tree plantations, which have their own problems, and some paper comes from already existing forest. Almost half of the earth’s original forests are gone, causing mass extinction for species whose homes are lost. 40 million acres of forests are wiped out each year. (3)
But Trader Joe’s paper bags are 49% post consumer recycled! So what? The other 51% is still harvested from virgin trees. And most of the time we have to double them so your groceries don't end up scattered across the parking lot. Remember your friggin’ bags. Bring back the paper or plastic ones, buy some totes, use a bike basket, a backpack, whatever.
#4 CHECK OUT PEOPLE ARE ACTORS
So all of this heavy thinking put a frown on my face. Except I wasn’t allowed to have one. Life at the store was far easier if I could successfully act my way through the shift. With all of these new insights in the back of my mind, it was really hard to conceal my inner dialogue. I represented Trader Joe’s, period. And more, I loved the company… and my coworkers :)
Luke was the head of a band adored by the Boston underground, and the crush that drove me to apply to the job in the first place. He taught me one lesson that really stuck with me.
“You’re on the clock? Then you’re on stage,” he said to me while we filled the wine shelves. “On register, I like to try and greet every customer with a new phrase. It gets hard to find new ones after a while! And as far as the customers, just remember to act like you care who they are and what they want. If you know you’re just acting, it’s easier. I promise.” He pat me on the back. I melted.
If some guy wanted a plastic bag for each of his bananas, I had to do it for him, and more, I had to act like I was glad to help (him suffocate some poor turtle). I sold pretty bottles of water imported all the way from New Zealand. I gritted my teeth as an unhappy customer complained about our lack of shrimp. I explained that the Gulf Oil Spill had cut off supplies, but that fact seemed to bewilder her. I wanted to smack her upside the head and tell her to read the news, but instead I smiled back at her innocently, fully concealing my distain for her ignorance.
#5 NOT EVERYONE HAS BEEN TO CHECK OUT SCHOOL
Working at Trader Joe’s offered an depth view of the retail link in the food chain. It’s almost like cashiers and customers exist in the same space, but not on the same mental plane. There are situations when you can tell who “gets it” and who “doesn’t get it.” We know we’re stuck in that store for the next several hours, while the customers’ heads are already at home. We’re thinking about what we’ll eat on break, and they’re thinking about what to make for dinner.
We’re thinking, “Did I order enough milk?” and they’re thinking, “Do I have enough milk at home for my Trader O’s?”
Cashiers and customers are opposing elemental forces. Customers don’t have the spare time to traipse around the store wearing a lei and look at all of the labels on every single product. They don’t go into the produce room and read the boxes to see what country the Papayas or Mangoes came from. They don’t see perfectly edible fruit with small bruises sit in the spoils pile waiting to be thrown in the dumpster. I was always frustrated with customers, as if they should just know by osmosis that they can still eat that tub of yogurt after the little digitally printed expiration date. My role as a Trader Joe’s crew member offered me a valuable opportunity to see consumption and waste from a different angle than the general public ever has a chance to do.
A few months after I quit, I decided to turn my lingering frustration into something productive. If I looked at being a cashier like going to school, I could see all of those torturous moments as special windows into a larger problem. All I wanted was a care free job, and then when I got it I became disillusioned.
“It’s like that Smiths song!” Luke exclaimed. He began to sing in a warbled voice like Morrissey.
“I was looking for a job
then I found a job
Heaven knows I’m miserable now”
(1) Gunders, Dana. Wasted: How America is Losing 40% of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council Issue Paper. Web. August. 2012. < http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf>.
(2) Federal Law: The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. Food Donation Connection: Let Nothing Be Wasted. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. <http://www.foodtodonate.com/Fdcmain/LegalLiabilities.aspx >.
(3) Eisenberg, Sheryl. Taking Trees Personally. NRDC.org: This Green Life. February 2004. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. <http://www.nrdc.org/thisgreenlife/0402.asp >.