Checkstand Etiquette

This post exists only as a direct result of a customer completely losing their mind and embarking on a screaming tirade of threats, violence. libel and slander. What followed was a multi-week campaign of attacks via Twitter and Yelp (using sock-puppets or drafting others to assist) and harassing phone calls to the job site and corporate offices. All from one customer that was miffed the customers in from of him did not let him enter a new line ahead of the when an additional check stand became available. I nearly lost my job (or at the least I was in peril of a financially disastrous demotion) due to the unhinged attacks of a customer who acted like a spoiled brat. I received the ire of the customer because I did not step in and escort him to he front of the line. This happens more than one would think.

Unfortunately, businesses typically side with the customer no matter how deranged the complaint appears. This worry of being fired for “rudeness” is something grifters and revenge-minded for a perceived slight often use to their advantage, playing on the employees very-real concerns of what might happen if a customer doesn’t get their way and even if they do, the worker doesn’t display the right amount of obeisance or display that they don’t know their place. Luckily for me, there was video recording the event.

To function smoothly our modern society relies on an agreed upon social contract to maintain peace and cooperate successfully among its members. Created through centuries of trial and error the social contract is a tenuous yet mutually agreed upon rules of expected behavior that allows strangers to get along in unfamiliar social situations. Sometimes that contract breaks down and chaos ensues, as anyone who has been in a major city during an extended power outage, cut off in traffic in Maryland, passed wind in an elevator or witnessed a Black Friday sale at a mall can attest.

Specifically and for the purposes of this study, the social contract often breaks down at the first moment when there are long lines of people waiting in a retail establishment and an additional cash register opens. Unfortunate recent events in our country have made it imperative that some people are in need of a refresher course on checkstand etiquette and the proper way to behave in a public retail environment.

Waiting in long lines in stores is unpleasant and I can sympathize. I would really like to get back that ten minutes of my life I lost when I was five people in queue behind the couple who insisted that they can buy DVDs with their WIC checks since they were purchasing children’s movies. But the reactions by some waiting in line seems to be relative in nature. Oddly, the same person who shouts and screeches about a delay, throws a tantrum and threatens or acts with violence for waiting in line to pay for groceries is conversely just a few minutes later calm, patient and even pleased to be waiting in a long queue to rent a movie from an automated kiosk. I’ve personally witnessed an enraged customer upset over a harried coffee shop barista that are then placidly content to wait in a long checkout line at a big box discount store. They shockingly display such a personality change that it leads me to think they were replaced by a duplicate from an alien pod somewhere between the condiments section and the fifty-pack of toilet paper.

It should be obvious that if a retail establishment does not have enough cashiers to serve the number of customers present it is not because no one cares or receives some sort of delight in alienating the main source of income. Rather it is because that is all the people they have dedicated to the checkstands. Most stores rely on personnel from the other departments to fill in as needed. Depending on the type of store employees from the children’s department, jewelry counter, dairy or meat sections will back fill and assist the front end with helping customers. Wander a major retail clothing store and witness that register after register and department after department is vacant of employees. This is is due to the staff being pulled in multiple directions. Is the shelf that displays your favorite shirt empty and no one is around to help? This is probably because the person responsible for stocking the shirts has been cashiering in the shoe department for the last four hours. 

The degree to which an employee is available to immediately assist is often subject to reasonable availability. Breaks, lunches and some other duties are mandated by State and Federal laws and company policies. Employees can and have been terminated from their jobs for the simple act of delaying their scheduled meal break to assist a customer or trying to finish a task in a timely manner. While unfortunate for the employee this is as much to protect the store from future litigation and spurious labor claims as much as protecting the rights of the worker.

So here is a step-by-step refresher course for both retail employees and customers on the proper checkstand etiquette for when an additional register opens. Feel free to print it and hand it out to those who are most in need of it.


Checkstand Etiquette - figure 1
Figure 1: This diagram is representative of a typical checkstand in almost any retail establishment. In this example Register #1 is open and populated by a cashier. There are four customers waiting. The common wisdom states that if there are three or more customers in a line then a additional register should be populated to assist in processing waiting orders.

Checkstand Etiquette - figure 2

Figure 2: When checkstand #2 opens it is policy and common sense for the cashier to call over, if they should so choose, the next persons waiting in line. That is, the customers who have been waiting the longest in a line have the right of first refusal to move to the other register. In this example Customers #2 and #3 move to checkstand #2 allowing the Customer #4 to move up in the checkstand #1 queue. This way, all waiting customers are expedited through the lines efficiently. Basically, everybody wins.

Checkstand Etiquette - figure 3

Figure 3
: The main drawback to the common sense application of the social contract as it relates to checkstand etiquette are the facts that politeness in our society is nearly extinct and “common sense is so rare it is a super power“. Often, as in the example as diagrammed in Figure #3, the last customer in the line, who by virtue of arriving last and therefore has been in line the least amount of time, jumps ahead of the customers who have waited the longest. This is rude and violates basic checkstand etiquette and breaks the social contract.

The cashier is put in a difficult situation when this occurs. If the cashier points out that the other customers should be helped ahead of them they are typically berated by the line jumper. What also frequently happens is that if the cashier, seeking to avoid confrontation, does not stop the last customer from jumping the line the other customers take out their frustration on the employee in much the same manner. Rarely do the customers directly confront each other. Wisely, perhaps, though cowardly, merely because the employee is perceived as a safer and more vetted target for ire and is unlikely to react with violence as an unknown quantity, whereas a customer off the street purchasing an energy drink just might.

Checkstand Etiquette - figure 4

Figure 4: This diagram represents the typical temper tantrum a customer indulges in when they can’t be first in line, even when they were the last to arrive on the scene. The product they were attempting to purchase (and would have if they had a little patience) is often thrown at the cashier, down the register aisle or at a display. The proper course of action would be for the customer to wait, return at a more opportune time or decide to take their business elsewhere, handing the product to the cashier so it can be restocked to prevent damage or spoilage. Unfortunately the tantrum is sometimes followed by a Yelp-ing Twitter-rage of dissembling and distortions motivated by revenge that can and has escalated into concerted real world and online harassment campaigns, bullying, slander and libelous acts. This is an extreme example though not all that uncommon and is familiar to many Marketing, Security and Human Resources departments.

Any person that thinks companies only track sales are kidding themselves. Blogs, forums and all kinds of media sites are browsed, sifted through and monitored. It is not an exaggeration to state that seemingly untouchable companies have been brought down by a negative yet truthful campaign. A sudden torrent of opinions (even seemingly coming from different people over an extended period of time are sometimes sock puppets created to cause problems for an individual or company) is analyzed with great effectiveness and the revenge motivated, spurious, harmful, libelous, slanderous and exaggerated claims are readily evaluated for what they are. Companies spend millions, if not billions, annually on marketing research and analysis.

So let’s clarify a few things clear for those people who feel too self-entitled to wait their turn and are caught up in the personal horrors of their First World problems:

Waiting for good dough
  1. It is not poor customer service to first assist those who arrived before you.
  2. It is not rude on the part of the employee to guide into the newly opened  checkstand customers who have been waiting the longest.
  3. Calls for the employee to be fired for acting according to common politeness are ridiculous.
  4. Threats, violence and acting out will not be tolerated, so don’t be surprised if you are asked to leave and not return. Workplace violence is a concern and threats are taken seriously.
  5. Just about all stores have video cameras and all manner of claims are easily investigated so tell the truth.
  6. Cyber-bullying, online personal attacks, harassment campaigns and libelous tales of how terribly you were treated could be actionable by a company and employees that may suffer a loss of reputation and income due to statements that are not factual.
  7. A threat to “never shop there again” is…Well…No threat at all. Few establishments encourage the repeat business of the tantrum-throwing customer.
  8. Don’t be a jerk.

For your convenience here is the entire 4-part Checkstand Etiquette worksheet suitable for framing, inclusion in a PowerPoint presentation or just for shoving into the faces of enraged a-holes: Checkstand Etiquette slides from LTMS.

Or maybe it was demons

It’s been months and months since I have fallen ill, corresponding with the decision to stop letting customers use my personal pen to make notes or write checks at the register. I rarely got sick before I worked in retail but shortly after I started I kept having various health issues that just wouldn’t stop. I suspected it was exposure to customers, raw meats and blood and relatively unsanitary conditions from shared keyboards, phone handsets and other equipment.

A few weeks ago I got sick again resulting in a short hiatus. It felt like it was the same sort of respiratory and intestinal affliction I always got when customers used my equipment or I failed to clean the keyboards and phones we all share. This is an illness we all share at some time or another and you can actually track the progress of it moving through the store like WHO tracks disease through the members of a remote village.

No telling how I got the old familiar germs but some weeks ago one customer hacked and coughed directly in my face and I could feel the warm death-spray spatter into my face. Of course my first reaction was a surprised “What the hell, dude!” The anger followed nearly immediately and I let the guy have it. He was not at all apologetic, just stood there and refused to respond or meet my gaze. To make things worse I had to assist him in entering his store club discount card and payment in the point of sale pad since it seemed beyond his faculties. The fact that he carried more money on him than I see in a month and had a wallet full of high-end credit cards did not help my mood any. I really hate it when stupid people make more money then I do.

I expected the worst and a few days later I started feeling poorly and then lapsed into horribleness. Fever, intestinal problems and the sensation of drowning in my own mucous lasted about four weeks total. Medicine did little to help and merely allowed me to keep on my feet, though one customer called the corporate office the complain I wasn’t very upbeat and nice to her. She was apparently oblivious to my near-constant retching, coughing and difficulty standing without shaking. Don’t people have anything better to do?

I guess it’s also possible I got sick from the equipment but I doubt it. Some time ago the liquid sanitizer we used on the equipment was replaced with a gel that isn’t suitable for wiping on keypads or phones. The glass cleaner we now use may be a poor substitute but I’m pretty fastidious about cleaning the gunk off my work spaces. So I’m pretty sure it was the jerk violently assaulting me by splashing his yellow/green lung fluids in my face that got me sick but ultimately…Who knows?

While the illness didn’t cause much pain it did leave me exhausted by the end of the work day forcing me to ignore the site and place on hold various To Do projects. Curiously, during my hiatus of a week or so when I was not posting I received more followers, links and “likes” to the blog than I did during the last four months of regular updates.

And that hurt.

Yes, it was the same person


Angry Customer: Is somebody going to help me in the bakery or not? I need someone to write ‘Happy Birthday’ on a cake.

Me: Well, at this late hour the bakery is closed and with the bakery staff gone we are not able to do much other than supply bags and boxes. None of the front end staff have Food Handler certifications and we are not allowed to prepare food for anyone.

Angry Customer: So I waited in line all this time for nothing? Thanks for nothing! All I wanted was someone to write on a damn cake.

Me: Ma’am, the law states we can’t. It’s for your protection.

Angry Customer: It’s just a cake! So you refuse to help me?

Me: It isn’t that. Again, the law says no one not certified in food preparation can do that for you. Surely you wouldn’t want someone not trained, perhaps careless with what they’ve handled to touch a cake.

Angry Customer: That’s ridiculous! I just want someone to write on a cake! I’ll get someone else to help me.

Me: I’m sorry. I won’t allow anyone without certification to use the bakery equipment or go behind the counter. I’d feel terrible if some child became sick. We have many cakes in the case that already have ‘Happy Birthday’ written on them. Can I get you one of those?

Angry Customer: Thanks for nothing!


Angry Customer: You. I wanna talk to you. I have a complaint.

Me: OK. How can I help you?

Angry Customer: That girl in the deli. She touched the slicer without changing her gloves before helping a customer. That’s disgusting.

Me: I’m very sorry. I’ll take care of that right away.

Angry Customer: Don’t they take a class or go to school or something to learn about that? Don’t they need to pass a test or something?

Me: Yes, they do. I’ll take care of it right away. I’m sure it was a mistake and it won’t happen in the future.

Angry Customer: It better not! That’s disgusting.

All this occurred without any apparent irony or self-awareness on the part of the customer.

True Horror, Part 1

There is the impossible, fantastic, supernatural horror that thrills and excites and then there is the cruel, callous evil of bastards who know better whose actions and lies have real world implications of death, pain, misery and despair.

DDT and pretty model (1948)

DDT sprayed from a TIFA (Todd Insecticidal Fog Applicator) around model Kay Heffernon to supposedly demonstrate it won’t contaminate her food (a hot dog and coke), Jones Beach, New York. (Photo by George Silk, 1948)

From Google TIME-LIFE archive.