If you have any friends who work retail, you’ve probably heard a lot of their horror stories. I spent 5 and a half years working as a cashier/grocery worker at a health food store and got pretty lucky with the types of customer I dealt with on a daily basis. Most of my interactions were friendly and pleasant and it was rare that I encountered someone who was abusive or dangerous.
Even so, there are certain patterns that crop up among customers in just about every retail job. As I switch roles from retail worker to customer, I find myself following certain rules I learned over the course of serving hundreds of customers. Each of the rules are meant to make the day of the person serving me just a little easier, and they are even more important to practice during the holiday busy season.
In order to avoid being labeled one of those customers, here are 22 Do’s and Don’ts for how to make retail workers love you.
1. Don’t use the cashier as a bank.
Banks maintain large supplies of all denominations at all times. Cash registers are supplied with just enough of each denomination to make change for the day and should not be treated like a bank. They do not have unlimited supplies of rolls of quarters, 10’s or 20’s. Even the entire store has a limited supply, and if they run out, they have to pay someone to-- that’s right you guessed it-- go to the bank. If you need to break your hundred dollar bill, if it’s really important that all of your change is in $10’s, if you need quarters for laundry, or you want more than $40 cash back, GO TO THE BANK. Cashiers won’t always have the change you need, and it will make their day more stressful if they run out of smaller notes just to make things more convenient for you.
2. Don’t haggle prices with the cashier.
Complaining to the cashier about the store prices is like complaining to the janitor about the architecture of the building. You are complaining to a person who has literally no control over the problem. 9 times out of 10, cashiers are not allowed to offer discounts without a manager. Don’t complain about prices, and don’t try to get them to change the price for you without a really good reason.
3. Don’t pretend to be mad or unreasonable as a joke.
Poe’s Law states that without knowing the person’s intentions, it is impossible to differentiate between an extreme view and a parody of that view. You may think it’s clear that you’re joking, or that the request you made is so extreme that your server must know you wouldn’t ask for that. But I guarantee you, any ridiculous request or complaint you make has actually been made by a real customer, in all seriousness, at some point in time. If your server guesses wrong and doesn’t follow your request, they could get an earful and their job could be in jeopardy. Don’t make them guess.
4. Don’t say “it must be free.”
If you’ve worked retail, then you know the “joke”: A customer is checking out, the cashier scans an item, the register goes BEEP BEEP BEEP because the item didn’t scan. The customer says, “It didn’t scan? It must be free!” and waits to be praised for their brilliance. Cashiers go through this song and dance hundreds of times over their careers. DO NOT MAKE THIS JOKE EVER. Please. Not even ironically.
5. Don’t hold random products above your head and say, “How much is this?”
There are thousands of products in the store, and their prices change frequently. I do not have the prices memorized. I do not know. Either look at the price tag or bring it to the cashier to scan.
6. Don’t talk about the chip reader.
One of the joys of being a cashier is having the same conversations over and over and over again. Any observation you make about their job, the prices, or the card reader, other people have made before, dozens of times. The chip reader is new for a lot of people, so they are compelled to share their opinions on it but most cashiers would really rather you kept it to yourself.
Comments that you are hereby banned from saying regarding the chip reader:
“Ugh, I hate the chip reader.”
“Some stores have em’ and some stores don’t. Everywhere is different!”
“Ya know they’re awfully slow for new technology!”
“They’re supposed to be safer but, are they really?”
“Don’t you just hate that beeping noise at the end?”
“Can I just slide my card instead?”
And my least favorite comment:“Oh, you guys have the chip reader now? When did you get that?” My response to this question was to smile, make intense eye contact and say, “A year and a half ago!”
If you must, it’s ok to ask, “Are we using the chip reader?” But remember that 9 times out of 10, if the card machine has a chip reader, if the directions on the screen say “insert” as one of the options, and if there is no sign or tape covering the insert slot, then you should use the chip reader.
7. Don’t ask a question you could google on your smartphone.
Questions regarding store products are typically fair-game, but rather frequently, service workers get treated like experts, not just in the contents of the store, but in everything. How do you make pickles? How long does this type of food last past its expiration date? Is this ingredient interchangeable with this other ingredient that you don’t carry? What’s the temperature outside right now? (How would I know, I’m inside and I’m not wired into an outdoor thermostat.) If you don’t have a smartphone, occasionally a service worker will be able to look up the information for you on a store computer. But if you’re asking just for convenience, remember that frequently, they’d find out that info the same way you would.
8. Don’t walk away mid-transaction.
If you think of something you’ve forgotten while you are ringing up your purchases, ask yourself the following questions: How soon will they be ready for me to pay? How many people are there in line? How far away is the item I need? If the answers are very soon, yes, and/or rather far, then don’t do it. If you do, you keep the cashier from doing their job-- keeping the line moving-- and you make everyone else wait for you.
Instead, wait till the transaction is over, ask to keep your groceries in customer service or set them to the side, go get your item, and wait in line again. If you decide to leave because you think you’ll be able to get back in time, under no circumstances should you stop and look at more items on the way back. I once had a customer and her son tell me they needed, “one more thing!” and then disappear for a full 10 minutes, only to reappear with an additional 10 items. Similarly, if you are next in line when you remember your missing item, step out of line and let the next person go ahead of you.
9. Don’t bring animals that aren’t service animals.
Non-service animals are not allowed in businesses that serve and prepare food and therapy-animals or emotional support animals do not count as service animals in this context. Not only does bringing non-service animals into a place that makes food a health issue, it also makes it much harder for actual service-dogs to concentrate on their jobs, which threatens the safety of their owners. If you’re unsure about whether your pet is allowed in a particular business, check the laws in your area regarding service animals, and/or ask someone in charge beforehand.
10. Don’t complain if you’re carded for a regulated substance.
Not only do cashiers have zero control over what laws surround regulated substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, and certain medications, but they could lose their job and be fined thousands of dollars if they fail to follow them. Never complain to a cashier about following the law.
11. Don’t try to convince an entry-level worker to break policy.
As with #10, cashiers don’t control what the store policies are, but if they don’t follow them, they could lose their jobs. Particularly regarding returns and exchanges, many storewide policies are in place to protect the store from scammers, but also to protect you and make sure your money is handled accurately and appropriately. When you try to convince a service worker to break policy for you, you are taking advantage of an uneven power dynamic, where it is their job to keep you happy, but they also risk their job if they do as you’re asking. If you are truly confused or frustrated by the policy, ask for a manager, and don’t take your frustration out on low-level workers.
12. Do ask for a manager if you have a problem.
Managers have much more power than entry-level workers do. The vast majority of the time, if an entry-level service worker cannot bend policy, answer a question, or fix a problem for you, a manager can, or at least they can offer you a full explanation of why they can’t. If you ask the service worker for the same thing repeatedly, get a no each time, and the worker says, “I can get my manager for you if you’d like,” that is code for, “Please stop complaining to me about something out of my control.”
13. Do come prepared.
As much as possible, have your receipt, reusable bag, money, coupons, ID etc ready when you check out. Service workers are almost always patient if it takes you a minute to find your wallet, but the more prepared you are with the things you need, the faster the transaction can go. Make sure you have everything before you leave your car, so you don’t break rule #8 to get it later. Please please please bring your receipt if you want to return something, and if you truly cannot find it, be ok with the process taking a long time.
14. Do read the price tags.
This seems like it should go without saying but, It saves everyone a lot of hassle if you read the price of the product you’re buying, particularly if whether you buy a product or not depends on the price. I once had a customer who balked at the price and said, “I thought it was on sale!” I said yes it is, for this price. He went back and looked at the sale tag, which listed it as the price it rang up at. Apparently, he saw it was on sale, didn’t actually look at the price, and just assumed it was a price he’d be willing to pay. Once he knew the price, he decided against the purchase. Also make sure to read sale signs and fliers carefully for exceptions or specific sizes the deals apply to.
15. Do research the product you want ahead of time.
If you are planning on buying a product you’ve never bought before, do some research before you come in. What’s the official name of it? What brands carry it? How is it used? These are all questions that will help a service worker find the product for you. If you just tell them, “It comes in a box and it’s green” they won’t be able to find it for you.
16. DO PUT YOUR DAMN CART BACK.
Barring significant injury or disability, when you are done with your cart or basket PUT IT BACK WHERE IT BELONGS. Don’t leave your basket on the floor for someone to trip on. Do not under any circumstances leave your cart in a parking spot. Don’t leave it three feet away from the cart corral. Do not put it perpendicular to the line of carts. Put it back, all the way. It only takes a minute and it saves the store workers a load of time and trouble.
17. Do communicate your bagging preferences.
Following directions and satisfying the customer are the two primary responsibilities of a bagger. Those that are trained to bag well (and those that haven’t been, aren’t always at fault for their lack of training) are usually able to bag your purchases in whatever way is convenient for you. However, you need to communicate your preferences otherwise they won’t be able to help you. The earlier you communicate them, the easier it will be to plan around them, avoiding the extra work of un-bagging and re-bagging things.
18. Do follow directions and read the signs.
If the sign says express lane, don’t bring more than 15 items. If the check-stand’s light is off and their closed sign is up, don’t try to get in line. If you’re using the credit card machine, read the directions carefully and follow them. If there’s a sticker on the credit card machine that says “Max cash back $40” don’t ask for more than that. If a worker asks you to adjust your behavior in some way-- ie: you can’t bring your bike in here, please leave any backpacks in customer service, we don’t take big bills above a $50-- don’t debate them. Listen and do as they say.
19. Do ask for help if you don’t know how to use the credit card machine/chip reader.
It is totally okay if you don’t understand how to use the credit card machine and/or chip reader or if you need help with a specific step along the way. Most cashiers prefer that you ask them rather than having to watch you struggle and then start the transaction over if something goes wrong.
If you do need help, listen to what the cashier tells you to do. I once had a customer pulling her card in and out of the chip reader and switching between the chip and the slider really quickly. I was trying to give her directions about what she should do next, but she ignored them, which prevented her from solving the problem. She ignored my directions for so long, the entire computer froze and it took 10 minutes to remedy the situation. It’s better to listen and go slowly than to ignore the instructions in favor of rushing through and messing up.
20. Do offer assurance.
It is the customer service worker’s job to keep you happy, and when they are unable to do this, many people get angry at them, even over small things. Put your server’s mind at ease by making it clear that you aren’t planning on taking out your disappointment on them. If they say no to a request or don’t have what you’re looking for, smile if you can and say “that’s fine, thanks for checking.” If you can’t help but get frustrated and it’s showing, clarify: “I’m frustrated by the policy, not with you,” or “I was really hoping to get that product. I know that’s not your fault. Thank you for trying.”
21. Do be polite.
Holidays are stressful. Day to day life is stressful. It’s okay if you can’t always be cheerful and friendly to customer service workers. But even if you’re having a bad day, be polite and offer basic respect in your interaction. When I worked as a cashier, anytime I had a bad day, my policy was to guarantee every customer a friendly “hello” with eye contact, clear communication regarding their transaction, and to wish them a good day with a genuine smile at the end. You don’t have to be chatty or make conversation. Just saying “hello,” “thank you” and letting us know what you need is plenty.
If you notice the person serving you is not offering you the warmth and friendliness you’re used to in a service worker, remember that service workers are people too, with good days and bad days. You have no idea what’s going on in their lives, how they might be feeling, or how awful their last customer might have been to them. They are human and they make mistakes. When you work the front end, you are stuck interacting with people for hours on end, and there’s no way to take a moment and de-stress if someone yells at you or is rude. And with most customer service jobs, calling out sick isn’t always financially possible or even an option, particularly during the holiday rush, meaning taking a day off for your physical/mental health can be out of the question. Offer these folks the same patience you would want on a day you weren’t feeling your best.
22. Do remember the power dynamic.
It’s really easy to forget that an interaction between you and a customer service worker is not an interaction between equals. The worker is being evaluated on how well they serve you, which means your opinion of their service influences the career success of the worker. Unfortunately, a lot of customers take this for granted and use their power to be controlling or abusive and unless the worker has a supportive manager, they may be required to put up with it. Service workers regularly bite their tongue during minor rude or disrespectful behaviors, even if they’d never put up with such behavior if they encountered it outside of work. Customer responses are also largely outside of the worker’s control, and there may be nothing they can do to keep this customer happy, but they could still get penalized for failing to do so.
Remember that you have power over the person serving you. Even in situations where they are enforcing a policy you disagree with or charging an amount of money you didn’t want to spend, they don’t control these things either. Don’t put a service worker between a rock and hard place by making them pick between pleasing you and doing their job. Use your power wisely.