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“Thank you, Mr. Safeway Shopper”, or, The Joy of a Categorical Identity

Written By: daveski on February 4, 2011 4 Comments

For a long time, I’ve had a thing against the way that Safeway has its cashiers personalize customers’ encounters at check-out time. Or, maybe I shouldn’t just call them “customers”, because, after all, we are card-carrying members, only able to get the real price on dozens of items if we sign over our names and contact information to the company, so that our shopping habits can be scanned, tracked, spammed…

You’ve probably had that experience too. You exchange pleasantries, swipe your Safeway card and then your debit card (or, heaven forbid, hand over your cash), have your groceries bagged, and what remains in this service encounter is the personalization: waiting for the cashier to tear off the receipt, search for the letters between the total amount you just paid and your Club Card Savings, and thank you by name as she or he follows Management’s scripted protocol:

“Thank you very much, Mr. Mal-Mal-Mal…kowski”.

That’s usually how it goes for me, anyway. And the agony of getting to and through that point in the exchange is palpable. Not because I don’t want others in line to hear my name, or because I dislike at all having my last name mispronounced. That part is just fine for me, for what it is. And to be fair, I should warn the checker beforehand that the given name that appears on the receipts is my mom’s and not my own, since I myself am not (yet?) a Club Member.

No, the agony here is of a different kind, maybe the flipside of the sort of thing described in this Open Letter to the Cashiers at Safeway by Sara Hov, who says she relives a whirlwind of highs and lows every time she hears the cashier read out the name of her ex-fiancé…as hers.

For my part, I can’t accept the very fact of my name being read off of that receipt in the first place–not then, not there, not by a cashier, not in Safeway. Sure, it sounds remotely like my name, but what place does it have passing from the database of a computer that wouldn’t know a person from a barcode, to the eyes and lips of an employee who’s never seen me, never met me before and won’t ever again? What right does Safeway have to call me by name in public, when all I want to do is exchange some money for a head of lettuce and a box of Cheerios?

So it was last night that I waited impatiently at the front of the line, hands resting lightly on my bagged groceries, as the cashier pulled the receipt from the register and looked for my name, to send me on my way with that personalized thank-you and mandatory smile. I hate this moment.

She was taking a little longer than usual, though, and spoke slowly as she began: “Thank you very much, Mr…”

A slight pause as she brought the receipt closer to her face, straining to read.

“…Safeway Shopper!”

She looked up triumphantly (or was it with a flash of heartfelt resignation?) from the receipt, and our eyes met for the first time. I think both of us were slightly taken aback by this permutation in Standard Procedure, and suddenly I felt guilty for (no doubt) letting my long-standing annoyance at a corporate policy color my interaction with someone who had shown me nothing but kindness and goodwill, right here, and in the moment.

“Thank you, Ms. Safeway Checker,” I stammered in response, trying to find my bearings. And we both laughed as we began the final stage of the service encounter–she, turning to the next customer in line, and I, lifting my bags and heading for the door.

Reflecting on this now, of course, I wouldn’t want to make assumptions about whether or not she thought about this moment as much as I have in the time since, or even remembers it at all. But it does make me happy to imagine that, in the face of the over-personalization of language in our corporatized culture, there are these little spaces in which we can experience, ironically, moments of joy in our categorical identities.

Safeway

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4 Responses to ““Thank you, Mr. Safeway Shopper”, or, The Joy of a Categorical Identity”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 4 February 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Fantastically funny, Dave! But…you think you have it bad with “Malinowski?” Cashiers always look at my receipt, look at me, stutter out… “Thank you…err….thank you” (generally refusing to catch my eye, having failed to catch my name). It’s pretty hilarious.

  2. Jenni on: 5 February 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Haha, this is hilarious! I think my Safeway card is different (I don’t think my name appears in the receipt) but even if it did, I assume they would never try to pronounce my Finnish last name either.. 🙂
    I find this personalized service culture pretty strange, and especially in the beginning (I came to US six months ago)I got very confused with the cashiers’ phrases like “remember to stay cool” or comments about the stuff I was buying like “oh you decided to close up your day with some popcorn”. What is one supposed to answer? Uh-huh?
    I know that they are just trying to be friendly and make the situation smoother by talking but sometimes the Finn in me feels awkward. Because after all, like Dave said, all I want to do is exchange some money for a head of lettuce and a box of Cheerios.

  3. Claire on: 6 February 2011 at 11:59 pm

    A wonderfully written snapshot of an every day moment!
    I have to say even though I hate grocery shopping I rather like the Safeway personalization. In a way it says I am an individual, a customer whom is appreciated for choosing Safeway. The cashier focuses their attention on me for one last second before moving on to the next. I like that someone asks me if I need help out to my car, I don’t need help but I appreciate being asked. I like that the Safeway employees are always polite.

    Where I grew up in NY the checkout experience is about as far from pleasant as you can get. If all you want to do is exchange money for groceries that task is accomplished. Usually the cashier is some teenager who acts as if your checking out is interrupting her/his conversation with a friend, because often it is. Sure the money gets exchanged, I get my groceries but it leaves me with a feeling that the store couldn’t care less if I shopped there or not.

    So I very much appreciate that Safeway and other stores in California make some effort in having a friendly checkout experience. Sometimes the grocery store cashier is the only person I talk to all day, I like to think we’ve had a conversation even if it’s staged.

    Also I like my current last name and it’s easy to pronounce. Though every once in a while someone pronounces it with a short a which is a little strange but at least they’re trying.

  4. Susan on: 11 February 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Big grin to hear (see) my own feelings about Safeway put into words! And now I can drop the can of guilt I’ve carried, for NOT loving such a worthy effort at personalizing the shopping experience. Here’s to the kind embrace of anonymity (so why did I have to enter my email address here?!) 🙂

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