Friday, May 13, 2011

10 Things I learned While Working at County Market

I've always believed we can learn a great deal about ourselves and the world we live in with each new thing we experience.

This can range from the seemingly mundane things to the more necessary things in life and even (in my case) the things we would have called you crazy for mentioning had you said we'd be doing them a year ago.

In December, I completed an eight-month stint as a grocery clerk at a County Market grocery store in Champaign. I began working for County Market following my lay off from the News-Gazette in January 2010. Though I wasn't sure what to expect at first, I quickly found myself in a place where I was enjoying myself and the people around me.

That said, I'd like to share a few of the things I've learned in the short time that I've been with County Market:

1. Working at a grocery store is not as easy as you think.

I don't normally enter any job situation thinking "I've got this," due to my fear of quickly finding myself thinking "I've got no idea what's going on." However, I thought to myself, how hard can it be? Believe it or not, the amount of work that takes place at a store on a daily basis would boggle the average mind. On top of the fact that we got a truck on what seemed like a daily basis - which we had to remove, sort and stock - there was the ritualistic facing of the grocery, frozen foods and dairy sections, clean-ups, the continuous refilling of red dots (backroom items) and holes, the always interesting customer queries and various other tasks.
To give you an idea of what kind of pace this store operates on, I typically filled the natural foods section on Thursdays. It generally took me about five to six hours to do this. No, I didn't know one little section of store could hold so much either.

In all seriousness though, with each department you enter, you find several individuals who know quite a bit about their respective departments and what each product has to offer. This is not something that just kicks in once you start working at a store - you have to work at it. You have to take the time to know the product and invest some actual effort into ensuring the customers get what they want from someone who knows what they're talking about. When a customer leaves unhappy, it makes everyone look bad, and no one wants that.

2. You need good shoes.

Most people average about 2 miles per day (or less, if you have a desk job) walking in the workplace. At our store, you'll walk triple that amount on a given day. How do I know this? Thanks to the handy piece of technology known as the pedometer. On average, the associates at my store (myself included) walk(ed) 7.5 miles per day throughout the store (and sometimes outside of it). When I first started, my feet hurt so bad after the first week I thought I would need some new shoes. Thankfully, some less expense padded inserts and foot soaks did the trick... three weeks later. On the plus side, I got quite a bit of exercise walking around the store and my feet eventually stopped hurting.

3. Grocery workers get less respect than they deserve.

Some might read that and think it applies to the first item. However, this is an item I actually wrote about a while ago: Respect. Every single day I worked, I encountered individuals who pulled no bones about their lack of respect for me and the job I was working, based solely on the fact they considered it to be beneath them. And you know what? I was ok with that. I would rather be happy knowing I am open-minded enough to accept the fact I work in a grocery store than let some uppity, self-righteous imbecile tell me I'm worth less because of where I work. Here's a newsflash to everyone out there who believes where you work determines your value as a person: You're an idiot. No, really. You're an idiot. I would really hate to have the level of self-loathing you possess to believe that you must work a very high-paying job and have lots of power to be worth anything.

Recalling a line from the aforementioned piece about respect, a professor once told me "you are not your job and your job as not who you are." We are professionals in what we do and we are individuals in who we are. If you believe someone's profession should dictate what kind of respect they are given (within reason here, people), you need to reassess your perspective of the world or get a new one altogether. You don't have to believe in God or read the Bible to agree with the statement "Treat others as you yourself wish to be treated."

Conversely, I also understand that people don't deserve to be treated like royalty without getting to know them. The point is (without getting too deep into it) is to allow that person the respect they deserve as someone who is doing what he/she must in order to survive. If you want to learn more about that person, do it. But don't disrespect someone without them giving you reason to do so.

4. I will never put something where it doesn't belong again.

Day after day, as I walked the aisles of the store checking for items that needed to be filled, I was constantly greeted with those friendly, but often annoying reminders of customers who had passed through the aisles before me. Anyone who has actually worked in a store knows that this comes in the form of items that do not belong in the particular aisle in which they are found. Whether it be a steak, frozen solid in the ice cream freezer, bags of pasta in the milk cooler or eight bottles of Gatorade hidden behind the organic oils, the reaction is the same: Disappointment in our fellow men and women that putting an item back was far too difficult compared with putting it on a random shelf where it - more often than not - goes bad, is ruined and therefore becomes unsellable.

I'll be completely honest, I was as guilty of this as anyone who had come through my store. But no longer will I be someone who says "you know, I don't think I want this steak anymore and taking an extra 60 seconds out of my shopping experience would be too much to handle, so I'm just going to stick this here with the ice cream because I'm sure no one will notice."

Trust me, they notice.

5. The knock off brands are pretty much the same as the name brands.

I'm sure there are people who would disagree with me on this one, but I can't for the life of me see myself paying more money for something that is - arguably - the same product as the cheaper brand.

Take the milk, for example. We have the Prairie Farms milk, which is close to $3 and we have the store branded County Market milk, which is just under $2.50. Fifty cents doesn't seem like much at first glance, but when you're shopping for a heaping cart full of groceries, the nickels and dimes begin to add up.

Trust me when I say this: If there is a cheaper brand, grab it. You're getting what amounts to the same product, more often than not.

6. The organic section will not necessarily make you healthier.

I've come to the conclusion that many people believe eating organic foods will make you a healthier person. However, just because an item says "natural" or "organic," does not mean it will be the healthiest option. According to a piece on, "You can make organic cheese, beef and bacon but that doesn't mean an organic double bacon cheeseburger is very good for you." Additionally, many people forget that a lot of these foods still contain a great deal of carbohydrates that, if not managed properly, can lead to weight gain.

Another thing I think people get caught up on is the idea of eating something "natural." Natural does not always mean healthy. Sure, the organic section holds naturally made potato chips, but that doesn't mean they're going to magically lose all the calories they have in them. Nor does the fact that the naturally made brownies are going to be any less of a brownie. Or the ice cream, the pizza and... well, I think you get the idea.

If you honestly want to eat better and believe you can do that by purchasing food from the organic foods section, do your homework before stepping into that area. Find out what foods will maximize your diet plan or hinder your goals. Similarly, don't buy something just because it looks healthy. Who knows, you may not even like the taste (believe it or not, some of the organic food tastes pretty bad unless you've acquired a taste for it). The point is, don't spend a bunch of money on something on a whim. Organic food is expensive, and if you just buy at random, you may be disappointed with your results.

7. Grocery workers are surprisingly good at analyzing customers

This one took me a while to figure out. There were times when my colleagues and I would be walking the aisles and one of them would point someone out to me, explain what he/she was probably going to pick up and then proceed to grin from ear to ear when the assumption (observation?) turned out to be correct.

Eventually I determined that a great deal can be learned about customers based on their body language and - if they are regular shoppers - their habits of walking through the store. One example that stands out for me is a woman who would come to the store at least three times per week and just walk around with a cart. She might grab a couple of things here and there to make it look like she was shopping, but what she was really doing was looking for people to simply notice her.

Believe it or not, the people in these stores are paying attention to you (most of the time).

8. Cleaning up messes annoys the grocery clerks

I always used to think that people who dropped things in a grocery store and broke them - usually spilling the contents of the jar or packaging out onto the floor - just had a spot of back luck with an unfortunate end.

However, after working at County Market, I have NOW come to the conclusion that, if you find yourself holding a jar of olives or barbecue sauce less than a foot away from the shelf on which it is displayed and you can't put it in your nearby cart or back on said shelf without dropping it, you should have your grocery shopping privileges revoked.

After all, what is that (or at least some of us) learned when we were growing up and wanted to be big kids with our drinks? That's right, use two hands to hold it OR be very careful with it if you can't fit your entire hand around it and insist on holding it with one hand.

Now, I understand that sometimes, accidents just happen - and that's fine. If you've got a toddler in your cart that reaches out and knocks something off the shelf or you turn without realizing what it is you're turning into, there's really not much to be done. But for goodness sake, if you've got something that is bigger than your single hand will allow you to hold, don't tempt fate by saying "well, I can do it"; use both hands and save the stockers some time. They would thank you for it if they could - Trust me.

9. We appreciate when customers make an effort to engage us, but hate long-winded exchanges.

It's really not too hard to understand that we, as humans as well as employees of a grocery store, enjoy human interaction with others.

That said, I really would have appreciated more small-talk with customers during my time at the store. I'm not talking about a 10 minute conversation or even a five minute conversation, but more than just the typical "hi, how are you? Good, and you?" exchange.

Believe it or not, walking up and down the aisles multiple times per day/night got incredibly boring. Human interaction helps with this quite a bit. It passes the time, makes for a more interesting shift and allows you to bring personality to the store to create a connection with typical customers.

Now, with the good comes the bad: We don't want your life story, nor do we care to hear you tell us random stories about relatives as though we know who they are by giving us their names. A 20 minute conversation about how you decided you like to eat cereal using coffee creamer instead of milk is not something that interests me. Keep it short, sweet and to the point and we do the same.

10. More often than not, we do as much as we have to do or as little as possible

I'm sure this surprises no one. Actually, I think this makes the distinction that we are like every other person who goes to work every day. At first, you work your tail off to learn the system and impress the bosses. However, at some point it is realized how everything works and just how much you have to do to pass off your activities as "work."

I could lie and say it was never like that when I was at the store, but lets be honest - I'd be flattering only myself. Don't get me wrong - I did plenty of work - but knowing the system and how to cut corners without sacrificing quality (too much) was a way of life at the store. After all, do you want to spend the entire shift counting every single item and filling even the smallest of holes or do you want to take care of the major stuff and spend time talking with your coworkers/friends and enjoying the work day because of a good mix? You don't have to answer that question because we both know the answer.

Some of you might take this as laziness, and that's fine - it's your choice to assume things without experiencing them for yourself. But I do know I worked plenty at the store and so did my coworkers. We helped customers, kept the store looking good and still found time to goof around in the back room (oh the back room).

* * *

These are just the things about my time at County Market that stood out to me as I sit here and thought about my experience. I'm sure if we were talking about it, I could name more.

Overall, I was glad to have the experience of working in a grocery store. It provided me a great perspective of the working world and insight into an industry that helps a great deal of people on a daily basis. I was able to make friends and meet some genuinely good people from the community while learning further learning the value of the money I was making (due to the large decrease in amount from the newspaper to the store).

So for those of you I worked with - thank you for the good times and the experiences. It was awesome.

1 comment:

  1. I've noticed recently how happily surprised some grocery store clerks sometimes are when I simply smile and give them a sincere "Thank you." How hard is it to not do that? How do people find it beneath them to even thank the people that are helping them?

    Nice post, Jon. Working in a supermarket definitely isn't easy. You've earned your props. :)