My first real job – punching in and punching out with a timecard – was as a stock boy, grocery bagger, cart-retriever, and eventually cashier.
The National Tea Company grocery store at the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, Illinois, where I worked throughout high school and on college breaks, is long gone. But not so the memories.
I learned four enduring life lessons there, three that actually matter.
- I don’t like beets.
Maybe it was their pungent, old-earth smell, the blood-red color of their juice on the floor, or the shards of menacing glass, but I hated having to clean up the oft-dropped glass jar of beets.
Why not drop a can of Dole peaches?
Or a box of Life cereal?
Or a plastic jar of Marshmallow Fluff?
No, for some reason, customers had a proclivity to drop glass jars of beets.
When the assistant manager came over the intercom with “Clean-up in Aisle 6,” all of us baggers would look at one another and silently mouth “Beets…”
To this day, they will not go down. The threat of having to eat one of them might work as a truth serum of sorts if I should ever be captured as an enemy spy.
2. Give people clear expectations, ownership, and resources, and they will get the job done.
When we arrived for our shift, we headed to the back of the store to unload the semi-trailer truck sitting at the dock. We then stacked all the boxes in the stockroom according to the aisles in the store. We were then each assigned an aisle in the store to stock paper goods, canned goods, dry goods, frozen foods, etc. Veterans got the easier aisles. New guys got the harder aisles.
The remainder of the shift was spent stocking the shelves and occasionally going up front to bag orders. As we stocked, we “faced” each item, meaning we loaded it on the shelf so that the label was facing directly out. If there weren’t a sufficient number of a given product to fill the space, we pulled forward the items we had and faced them.
The expectation was that by the end of a shift, the assistant manager could walk down the entire length of your aisle and be met by a
Military recruits with their tight bed corners, sharp pants creases, and perfectly arranged footlockers had nothing on us.
I loved owning my aisle.
I loved knowing the location of every one of my products.
I loved the beauty and harmony that came from order, consistency, and predictability. It is a practice that I’ve carried with me in every job since.
I know what you’re thinking: “He probably organizes his pantry this way.”
Yes, I do.
And the dishwasher, too.
3. Names matter.
Working my way up to cashier meant no more beets to clean up. No endless number of cuticle cuts from breaking down boxes or opening up grocery bags. No more dirty white shirts, soiled aprons, and stained ties.
It was just me, the cash register, and the customers.
This was pre-credit card days for most shoppers. Cash and checks were still the exchanges du jour. And checks had the customer’s name printed on them, so we were trained to address the customers by name. Being the obedient-dog compliant type that I am, I always handed the register receipt back to the customer with a smile and
“Thank you, Mrs. Green.”
Doing so elicited a smile of recognition and a “Why, you’re welcome” ninety-nine percent of the time. It became meaningful because it evolved from a rote activity to one of human engagement:
“No ribs this week, Mrs. Green?”
“Oh, no. It’s time my Charlie ate a few more greens.”
It is such a simple gesture. Whether in a grocery store, department store, or restaurant, I am forever conditioned to look for a name tag.
“I can’t decide, Steve. Which of the two specials would you recommend?”
4. The pride of independence.
Working through high school and college allowed me to save enough money to cover my room and board, books, and tuition at the University of Illinois. Undergrad and grad school.
OK, ok, this was way before it cost $40-$60 thousand or more a year to go to college, but still, there was never any question that I would be paying for it. The message from my parents was, “If it’s something you want, save for it.” It’s a message that has served me well.
When I look at the two diplomas above my desk, I can take enormous pride knowing that they are indeed mine.
I know what you’re thinking: “He probably had no fun at all in college.”
That, my fellow BizCat360° writers and readers, is another tale.
Come on, honestly. How do you feel about beets?
What real lessons did you take away from your first job?