Singing the express lane blues

By Marla Boone

Contributing Columnist

Before the hate mail starts, let me be very clear that I am not blaming the cashiers. The cashiers are the victims here, just like we customers are. They’re just a little closer to the action and a lot closer to the cash box. But ever since people started realizing there might be something to this pandemic issue, things have gotten a little hinky at the grocery store, and I don’t just mean the lack of cleanser and the stale cereal.

In case you are so isolated you are living off last year’s canned green beans and haven’t been to a grocery store lately, let me give you the bad news. I’m not talking about people hoarding toilet paper, although that’s a weird enough topic for about seven columns. I’m also not talking about the lack of bran cereal. There are approximately 90 kinds of boxed cereal in your average grocery store. But all of a sudden, there is a lack of bran cereal. I asked someone about this and was told there is a shortage because the manufacturers can’t get the raw materials to make bran cereal. “Last month it was Jello,” he added.

I would like to believe this reasoning. I really would. It would set some little corner of my troubled mind at ease. But then I look at the shelf and see there is row upon row of bran cereal with raisins in it. Same brand. From this, the haunted consumers (that’s you and me) are supposed to infer there are raw materials aplenty to make bran flakes with raisins but not plain bran flakes.

Every time there is a hurricane or a flood or a pandemic, grocery stores are inundated with shoppers who are attempting to stock up on any conceivably useful item. Shelves are stripped of the aforementioned toilet paper and bottled water within minutes. Within days, most non-perishables are gone except canned collard greens. Fresh collard greens are one of life’s fabulous foods. It’s hard to believe canned collard greens are even remotely related to the fresh product. There is only one way to make collard greens taste that bad and the people who can them have figured out what it is.

In any case, what I’m trying to get to here is the customer/cashier ratio. This turns out to be a very large number ,and it’s getting larger. The stores are packed, absolutely packed, and on a good day, there will be three cashiers open. No one outside the corporate office is pleased about this. The customers ready to check out are unhappy because the line to check out reaches clear down the aisles. The customers who are still trying to hunt down that last, elusive bag of dried pinto beans are unhappy because the aisles are congested with people in line to check out. The cashiers are unhappy because many of those disgruntled people are complaining to them, the cashier. It is the rare grocery store, indeed, that lets cashiers make corporate policy. So it isn’t the fault of the cashiers there aren’t more of them. They’re just the ones who bear the brunt of all that unhappiness. They’re the ones on their feet all day. They’re the ones who are anemic from paper cuts stemming from the zillion clipped coupons they handle each shift. There the ones listening to a myriad of complaints, not the least of which concerns cereal, toilet paper, and missing pinto beans.

Customers do have choices, of course. If you have few enough items, you can go to the express lane. This brings up other issues. If you buy five oranges, is that five items or one item five times? Sure, most people in the express lane apparently can’t count anyway, but pondering things like this does help pass the time while the person behind you whose idea of social distancing is to ram you multiple times with their cart that contains thirty items rams you multiple times with their cart that contains thirty items.

Then there is the self check-out. I would love the idea of the self check-out if the grocery store would give me a discount for doing their work for them. I’m scanning the items. I’m bagging the items. I am, of course, paying for the items. I’m saving that store a bunch of overhead and what do I get for my trouble? The inability to use my zillion clipped coupons without the help of the one cashier who’s working six lanes.

At least I know why the cereal is stale. It is a parallel to the story of the young pregnant woman who was riding a notoriously slow train. She went into labor and told the conductor she was going to have her baby any minute. The conductor chastised her for getting on this habitually tardy train in her condition. “But sir,” she said. “I wasn’t in this condition when I got on.”

I have a feeling the cereal wasn’t stale when I got in line.

Marla Boone resides in Covington and writes for Miami Valley Today.