The Power of a Few Kind Words

She thought being a store clerk was easy, until it was her turn to stand on the other side of the counter. 

Posted in , Feb 20, 2020

Illustration of two angels holding an open sign

Fedex was supposed to be known for its speedy delivery. I shot a look at the clock on the wall. Again. It was almost 4 p.m. What is taking so long? I thought.

“Found it!” the clerk said, holding up the mailing label he’d been digging for. Did he expect a reward?

The clerk had warned me this wasn’t going to be easy. As soon as I walked in he announced, “I’m a newbie.” He also told me his name, which I’d already forgotten in the long while I’d been standing there watching him search for the right label. And price. And the right box.

He slipped the books I was sending inside and turned the box over. The books thunked to the other end. It took everything I had not to roll my eyes. “Maybe put a piece of cardboard in there. To stabilize them.”

“Oh! Good idea,” he said. He went off to find a piece of cardboard. I tapped my foot on the floor. Drummed my fingers on the counter. Finally I just crossed my arms across my chest and leaned on the counter with a heavy sigh. If that doesn’t give him the message, nothing will, I thought.

The March sun was practically setting when I finally got to my car. My cell phone buzzed. It was my friend Faye, who ran one of my favorite local clothing shops.

“Roberta,” she said, “I was hoping you could help me out this Saturday. Ed and I have a chance to take a weekend trip. It was really last minute, so I don’t have much time to find someone to mind the store. You were the first person who came to mind.”

How could I say no? Faye had done so much for me. When I lost weight a few years back she built me a new wardrobe practically single-handedly—and helped me sell my old clothes for extra cash. “Sure, Faye,” I said. “I’d love to.”

I stopped by the store on Friday so Faye could teach me the ropes. “It’s really just learning how to work the cash register and credit card machine. And what to do if someone writes a check. Oh, and how to tally your sales. Easy-peasy,” she assured me.

It certainly sounded like it. I’d spent my nursing career managing hospital-wide programs. A cash register ought to be a piece of cake, I thought as I jotted down step-by-step notes just in case.

“Once you start using the machine, it’ll come automatically,” Faye said.

“I’ll be fine,” I told her. “You just go and have fun.”

Saturday morning I stationed myself behind the counter, adjusted some of the angel figurines that lined the narrow window. Outside, four cars pulled into the parking lot. That’s plenty of people at once, I thought. I looked down at the register. A memory from my nursing career flashed in front of me. We’d just gotten a new blood-glucose monitoring device at the hospital and I couldn’t get it to register a reading. A coworker came over to help. As he left, he shook his head, smirked, and within earshot of several patients and other coworkers, said, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.”

My cheeks had gone red. I could feel them warming up again now. What if I messed this up? I imagined all those customers standing at the counter tapping their feet, drumming on the counter, heaving heavy sighs. Just as I’d done at FedEx. Dear Lord, what am I in for?

The front door opened. As the customers milled around, I tried out the register. I took the price tag off a shirt I planned to buy myself, punched in the sale amount using the gray buttons and hit the “1/9” key. Now total the sale with the blue button, I told myself. I checked the notes. Sure enough they said, “The drawer should pop open.”

Easy-peasy, right? Nope. Nothing happened. Oh, no, I thought. I pressed one button after another. Nothing.

The door opened again and a man entered with a Starbucks cup. “What do you think, hon?” his wife called to him. She was a chic blonde modeling a long asymmetrical floral top over black leggings. “I saw this same outfit at the mall last week.”

“Of course Faye would have it too,” one of the other customers said. It seemed the whole crowd were Saturday morning regulars. I dried my clammy hands on my slacks. “Faye’s not here today,” I said. “And I can’t seem to get it together.” I fumbled for my notes. “I’ve got all the instructions scribbled down here.…” A fool with a tool is still a fool, I thought.

An awkward silence followed, broken by one of the customers. “This is Roberta, y’all,” she said, like I was a special treat. “Faye told me she’d be here today.”

The man with the coffee appeared at my side. “Just read over your notes,” he said. “And take a deep breath. There’s no rush here. It’s the twenty-first century version of an old-time general store, except instead of RC Cola, we drink chai!” He raised his cup in a salute.

“Chai’s my favorite,” I blurted out.

“Well, your wish is my command, Roberta,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He sauntered out the door. The ladies went on with their shopping. I bit my lip and studied my instructions again. Punch in the sale amount from the garment ticket. Hit 1/9. Then total the sale with the blue button.

Bing! The door popped open as promised. I tried it again. Bing!

The power of a few kind words, I thought. By the time my chai arrived I was ringing up sales like a pro. Faye’s customers were a dream. I helped a teenager choose something to wear to her school’s band dinner and an older lady find a stylish jacket for a friend’s memorial.

When I locked the door at four o’clock I caught sight of those angel figurines in the window. “Job well done,” I said to them. I got into my car, feeling accomplished. But I had an errand to run on the way home. I drove straight to the office supply store and headed for the FedEx counter. My newbie clerk was there again. His name tag read Brad. I wouldn’t forget that again. “You mailed a package for me the other day,” I said. “I wanted to apologize for my behavior.”

Brad grinned. “Not to worry,” he said. “I look forward to assisting you again.”

“Thank you,” I said. I noticed the manager standing nearby. “I came by today to tell you that Brad here did a really good job the other day.”

Practice—and a few kind words—would make Brad a better clerk. Hopefully it would make me a better customer too.

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