Cynthia Oi Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

Glitchy high technology
beats down a store clerk

THE CLERK was already sweating bullets before he looked up from the cash register and saw me and seven other customers hovering around the counter. Something was wrong with the register's link to the store's main computer or its data base or god-knows-what-all and he couldn't verify immediately that the tall guy he was waiting on was listed as a member on the company's roster and qualified to use a discount coupon.

The clerk was the only one on duty on a Saturday, a time when there would more likely be a lot of customers than on a weekday. If all systems had been working right, he probably could have kept pace, but as it happened, they weren't.

Tamping down panic, he explained to the tall guy that the verification could take a while. Oddly, through the wonder and blunder of technology, the register was able count off how long the process would take.

"Ninety seconds," the clerk announced, drumming his fingers on the counter. "Sixty seconds," he said, with a hopeful smile. "OK, almost ... there!" he said, then tore off the receipt and sent Tall Guy on his way.

Next up were two teenagers who had been joking and elbowing each other as they stood in line, oblivious to the clerk's ordeal. They didn't have their membership cards, they said, but couldn't the clerk just punch in their names?

I could almost feel the heat as the clerk's blood pressure bubbled, but he maintained his cool. Something's wrong with the computer, he told them. Maybe they could come back later?

They shrugged like it was no big deal and slid out the door just before three other customers, impatient with the wait, took their leave.

Not me. I figured I'd already invested a good amount of time and, with a kind of perverse curiosity, wanted to see the process through. I stepped forward with my card. He scanned it, then groaned. It seemed that my "preferred member" status would require the twitchy computer to do more than just record my purchase and tally up the bill. Clerk and I waited together. Finally, the total ticked through and I handed him my credit card. He swiped it, only to discover that it triggered another glitch that would further delay the transaction.

I said, "I should have given you cash." Which is when he lost it.

"You had cash?" he yelled, then berated me for proffering plastic when I had real money. I let him go on for a while, then reminded him that I was the customer.

Bingo. His sales clerk indoctrination kicked back in. He apologized profusely. I told him to cancel the credit card sale, gave him exact change so as not to induce any more computer nightmares and left to complete other errands.

A half hour later, I walked by the store again. The clerk was alone at the counter, punching away at the unruly register. I went in to see if he was OK.

He smiled wanly when I said I could understand his frustration with being the only worker on a busy weekend shift. He said he "really, really" wished he could quit, but needed the job. Although his uniform was embroidered with the words "management team," that was only a ruse, he said. He was neither management nor did he feel like part of a team.

Too bad that whoever is in charge understaffs the store. More than half of the people who were there when I was didn't buy anything -- not good for the bottom line.

Live bodies are usually the first to go when a company cuts costs. To make up for them, businesses plug in technology, as in the all-too-familiar "menu options" of "if this, press 1; if that, press 5; if the other, press 179." Technology offers fine instruments for business, but there has to be a balance. Even if computer breakdowns don't occur often, that one time was enough to break the clerk's spirit. No amount of money can be worth that.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976.
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