Confessions of a Clerk

Once upon a time, a lonely blue shopping cart was left abandoned hundreds of feet away from its home and it was my job to retrieve it. This is the tale of my short-lived career as an Albertson’s courtesy clerk where I learned how to become an expert at dodging fast cars in a poorly designed parking lot.

I began working at the Albertson’s on Campus Drive a couple of months after starting my freshman year at UC Irvine in 2007. It was the Thanksgiving rush and I was grateful for the part-time job.

“In a few months, you can apply to be a cashier, but right now we really need courtesy clerks,” they told me when I was hired. It didn’t seem like a bad deal though. I was to bag groceries, sweep the store and interact with customers. It would be hard work, but an experience nonetheless.

About an hour into the day, the team leader handed me a bright orange vest and told me I had cart duty. I had no idea know what this entailed.

The first 15 minutes of cart duty didn’t seem so bad. I quickly collected the carts that people left in the handicapped parking near the front of the store and looked around for more. As I stared out into the vast sea of parked cars, I spotted the bright blue carts hiding between vehicles and tucked beneath trees and in bushes. I gazed even further and saw carts by Starbucks and Wells Fargo. As I watched cars zoom mercilessly through the lot, I began to dread the next 45 minutes of the day.

I worked quickly to collect the abandoned carts around the parking lot, while wondering why Albertsons didn’t have a designated space for people who parked too far from the storefront to return their carts. I also observed customers who could have very easily walked 10 feet to return their carts but decided against it, carelessly abandoning their carts just a few feet from the shopping cart area in front of the store.

The hardest part of the job (aside from cart duty in the rain) was trying not to hit parked cars while struggling to free various shopping carts from hard-to-reach locations. Did you know that the sprinklers sometimes go off in the Albertson’s parking lot at 11:30 at night? I discovered this when I was caught in a water shower one night while wrestling with a stubborn cart.

Despite all this, I refused to admit defeat and told myself that things would get better. The days eventually progressed into weeks and Thanksgiving made me loathe the laborious job even more. The cast of customers who came through the store were not always a treat. There was the well-dressed lady in 3-inch stilettos who brought three turkeys to the register, purchased one, and made me bring the other two back to the shelves. There was the oh-so-pleasant woman who demanded that I do something about the cold temperature in aisle nine, the frozen food section. I began to realize that courtesy clerks received the least recognition, yet performed the most tasks in a day.

During training, we were taught to be “customer service secret agents,” but the job felt more like a frenzied battle zone. My five-hour shifts had me bagging groceries from lane to lane, restocking items that customers decided against purchasing at the register, cleaning up spills and messes, directing lost customers to correct aisles and rushing to clean the bathrooms and sweep the entire store in the 15 minutes allotted to us for that task.

I was prepared to throw in the towel. “Why don’t you apply for a cashier position?” a co-worker asked when I told her I was ready to quit. But after three months of my courtesy clerk duties, I raised my white flag. I greatly admire anyone who sticks out a job like this because I know how it feels to be a tired, beaten-down employee. Now when I shop at Albertson’s, I always remember to smile at the courtesy clerks and thank them, and I bid you do the same.

Finally, return your shopping carts. It only takes a minute or two out of your day, and you could be saving the life of the poor courtesy clerk who bravely dodges speeding cars to rescue your abandoned shopping carts.