Inside my neighborhood grocery store, with milk and bread in hand, I found myself at the end of a long, slow-moving line.
As the line inched forward, the man two people ahead of me finally put his items on the conveyor belt. The end was near!
I zoned out briefly, but the man’s angry voice interrupted my reverie. “Hey! Those noodles are supposed to be on sale! You overcharged me!”
The cashier looked at the register. “They rang up at regular price, sir. They’re not on sale.”
“That’s why I’m telling you to fix it, because they’re on sale!” he said, his voice rising.
“Well, if they were on sale,” she explained, “it would have been in the computer. Perhaps a different brand is on sale?”
“NO!” he shouted. “I know. There was a sign. You need to fix it! You’re deceiving customers!”
By now he had the attention of everyone in the vicinity. The line, growing longer by the minute, was twisting snakelike through the front of the store. Some shoppers sighed, shifting from foot to foot and checking their watches. I understood the man’s desire to get a fair price, but to berate the cashier like this? To hold up the whole line? I wondered how much the savings was anyway.
“I’m not authorized to change prices,” the cashier explained, pushing a stray hair away from her face. “I am only allowed to sell things at the prices listed in the system. If you’d like me to take the items off your bill, I can do so. Or, if you’d like to speak to the manager about the 50-cent price difference, perhaps he can resolve the issue.”
“The manager?!” he shouted, his face reddening. “Why, that’s a great idea. I think I’ll do that!” In a huff he stalked off to find the manager, leaving the cashier stranded mid-sale and the rest of us watching, waiting and praying for this whole thing to be over quickly so we could just move on with our lives.
He returned with the manager several minutes later, gesticulating and loudly telling the story. “And I told her it was on sale and she didn’t believe me. She wouldn’t help me. She refused to do a thing!”
A few of us wanted to defend her, but he grabbed the manager’s arm and tugged him toward the cashier, pointing a reproachful finger at her.
“I can’t believe the service I get here. First, your store deceives customers about the prices and next your stubborn cashiers won’t even listen or help. This is ridiculous!”
It was the store’s new manager – I go there enough to know who's who. Maybe he felt that he needed to prove himself, maybe he was having a bad day or had some negative history with this cashier, but what followed absolutely shocked me.
“How could you?!” the manager shouted at her. “You have an obligation to serve the customers! If you couldn’t authorize a price change you should have come to me! And now you’ve gone and humiliated this man?”
Her face paling with sheer embarrassment, she began to answer back. Her words were heated. Their exchange became a shouting match.
“Well that does it,” the manager said finally, one hand on his hip and the other pointing at her. “You’re fired! Get out of my store!”
I gasped. Fired?! For this? I couldn’t believe it. Several people started toward the manager, but he waved them away and headed back to his office.
The now jobless cashier, an older woman, reached under the counter, grabbed her pocketbook and ran out of the store in tears.
Did the customer get what he wanted? Was someone’s job worth the 50 cents he saved on every bag of noodles?
Another cashier came to take her place and somehow I made it through the line and back out into the brilliant afternoon sun. As I replayed the incident in my mind, I kept thinking about the angry customer who started it all. Did he get what he wanted? Was he still there when she was fired or had he already marched out of the store? Was someone’s job worth the 50 cents he saved on every bag of noodles?
The receipt I had never put away was getting sweaty in my palm. I looked at it. Milk and bread. And a startling reminder to think before you speak. Because those words just might cost a lot more than you ever could have imagined.