All Hail The Checkout Girl

When Anna Sam graduated from college, she entered the working world as a woman with a passion for literature and a desire to obtain a job in publishing. But that dream didn't quite work out.

Sam, unable to land a publishing job, returned to the supermarket where she'd worked as a checkout girl during her time as a student, using her part-time wages to help finance her education. The job was difficult on many levels: "There are a lot of health problems in this job - tendonitis, lumbago, that sort of thing," Sam says, "There is a lot of depression as well because you're completely ignored by everyone: by your managers and by the customers. After a while you become convinced that you're less than nothing."

Sam was faced with nasty customers on a daily basis, who treated her poorly due to her position. Upon greeting families at her register, Sam recalls, parents would warn their children, "If you don't work hard at school, you'll end up like that lady," apparently unaware that Sam was, indeed, an excellent student who simply chose to work the job because it was the only one available. "There are an awful lot of people like me," Sam says, "They have studied hard, got a degree and found that it leads to the jobs no one wants."

Sam decided to give a voice to checkout girls by sharing her experiences on a blog, which has since received over one million visits and spawned a book, Les Tribulations d'une Caissière (The Tribulations of a Checkout Girl), which has sold 100,000 copies in France. A film version, musical, and even a comic strip are also in the works.

As someone who also worked as a checkout girl for a year to earn tuition money, I sympathize with Sam's story and applaud her efforts to bring public attention to the way people treat those who work at supermarkets. I worked in a small, craptacular supermarket outside of Boston during my senior year, putting in nights and weekends in an itchy polyester apron and scanning cans and boxes along a slightly dirty conveyor belt. It was one of the best jobs I've ever had, in terms of giving me a better insight into human nature; people consistently treated me like I was stupid, talking very slowly and loudly as if I couldn't understand what they were saying. They took out their frustrations on me, and I left every night feeling like a complete piece of crap, sniffed at and sneered upon by people who apparently felt like they had the right to yell at me because their cereal wasn't on sale this week, as it had been two weeks prior.

There are many difficult aspects to being a checkout girl that people probably don't realize; there is a lot of loneliness, stress, sadness, and frustration that comes through the lines, such as seeing an elderly man pay for 15 frozen .50 burritos with handfuls of warm change; having to tell a young mother with three sweet-faced children that WIC doesn't cover a specific cereal or type of juice and seeing her face fall as she realizes she has to put things back, and watching people wince as the totals add up on the computer screen. You can feel the stress of your customers; you get a sense of who they are by the items they continually buy, you can tell when your regulars are struggling when their orders go down or when they begin to switch from fancy brands to generics.

There were times when I felt compelled to mention that I was saving up for grad school, as if I had to make it known that I was better than this stupid job, but that always made me feel worse; the job wasn't stupid at all, my attitude towards it was, and was just as bad as those who were judging me from the other side of the aisle. After a while I just realized that the job was a stepping stone in where I wanted to go; the money would be put to good use and was worth the effort. And the lessons I learned there will stay with me longer than any I picked up in school. Kindness goes a very long way.

Sam hopes her success will open people's eyes to the way they treat checkout workers: "I'd like to think that I could help to change the way people look at checkout workers," she says, "It would be a start if they were just a little more polite to them." It would indeed.

The Checkout Girl, Abused, Ignored, And On A Till Near You [Times of London]