It's my life; it's her job

So I'm shopping for groceries, one Monday night at Jewel, when a woman's voice stops me in my tracks. "Would you like to try some fresh hot pizza?" I don't have to think; of course I want to try some fresh hot pizza. As I stood there chewing my tasty sample, I slowly realized that it was unlike other frozen pizzas. So surprisingly delicious, so crisp yet doughy, so sweet yet cheesy, that I started to feel a strange love for this woman.

The pizza was from Home Run Inn, a local Chicago company. And it was good. Really good. But why did I transfer my product-love into person-love? Did this woman own Home Run Inn? Of course not. Did she even work for them? No, she worked for Jewel. Perhaps she made this pizza? Heated it up in her own oven? Rolled the dough with her own two hands? No, she was simply doing her job. She had no connection with the product, none whatsoever, and yet I felt like it was she alone who had brought me one step closer to heaven.


This is my theory, and it may sound strange, but here you go. I care more about employees than they care about me, because when we interact in a store, it's my life, but it's their job.

When we talk with employees in a store, we care about them. At least a little. Because whatever is happening in a store is happening "in our life." Shopping is a chore, a leisure activity, a form of entertainment or a contribution to the family, but it's an event that takes place during our everyday lives.

But for store employees, interactions with shoppers are a dime a dozen. Each person asking them a question is just one more distraction, one less item stocked, one less customer checked out. People may blip the radar if they are especially annoying, funny or strange, but for the most part, shoppers come and go and the radar just stays flat.

Yet for better or worse, we endow store employees with an unrequited amount of importance. We want to give them credit when their products are great. More often, we don't want to hurt their feelings when their products are bad. Worst of all, we feel embarassed when they see us buying something awkward. But do these people really care? Of course not. This is just their job.

Example 1: The pizza lady. I loved her product, and so I actually wanted her to see me buying it. I discussed my purchase with her. I picked up the pizza very blatantly, and made sure she saw me putting it in my cart. I wanted her to know my true feelings for "her" pizza. But was she proud? Pleased that her salesmanship helped Home Run Inn? Probably not. I mean, she's just doing her job.

Example 2: The wine lady. She handed me a friendly sample of some sparkling wine. I hated it. It wasn't sweet like she said it would be. It was dry and it burned in my throat. But could I hand the tiny cup back to her, half-drunk and choking? Of course not. I thought this would hurt her feelings. So I carried it three aisles away and tucked it behind some peanut butter. Would she have cared? Probably not in the slightest. It wasn't personal.

Example 3: Something we can all relate to. The cashier, at any store where embarassing-yet-necessary products are sold. I'm talking about family planning products, feminine hygiene products, medicine for strange and unattractive conditions. It's bad enough that we have to ask someone to get them out of the locked case for us. Then, standing in line, we pray that the checkout lady doesn't roll her eyes, snicker, or make some awkward comment. But does she ever? Does she really care about the size of condoms we are buying? Or the fact that our new tongue scraper is recommended for bad breath? Of course not. She's just trying to get through her shift.

Now I'm not saying store employees aren't important. They are people going about their jobs, and tough jobs, I might add. Some might care a lot what their customers think, or giggle once we're out the door. But as shoppers going about our lives, we like to think that we are unique to them - that our tasting and purchasing experiences are original and that we must affect them oh so much. On the contrary, the people who work at the grocery store have probably seen it all. They've had shoppers who loved their samples, and shoppers who hated them. They've encountered nice people, rude people, annoying people and crazy people. They've seen nine customers this week buying hemorrhoid cream.

So maybe I think my in-store interactions are important because they are a chapter in my day, a break from the norm, a story to tell friends later. Perhaps I only talk to one employee, so that person becomes memorable to me. But for the employee, it would take a lot to truly rock her boat. She sees hundreds of me an hour. So the same interaction that has so much importance to me, has almost none to her. Why? It's my life; it's her job.


Come for the deals, stay for the treasure

Last week I went to Costco, to buy a chocolate fountain. Possibly the most obscure, hilarious item I've ever purchased. It's for an upcoming party, and once I decided to get one, I absolutely had to find one. There was no turning back.

There are no local chocolate fountain stores, per se, and rental can run you $300, so when I realized I might find it at Costco, my heart leapt at the possibility. Sure enough, the Costco website showed two or three different ones, ranging from $40 to $200. Amazing, I thought, and only at Costco.


One year ago, I wrote about Costco in an admittedly whiny way. I said that the store's giant products require giant houses, and that therefore, Costco is not for me. I still find most of the industrial-size items impractical, but nonetheless, I'll confess that trips to Costco have crept into my life with greater and greater frequency.

However, over the year of my membership, the motivation has changed. I used to crave Costco's low prices per unit - its great deals on commodities. But when that didn't pan out logistically, I started to discover the other side of the clever retailer. Now, I shop at Costco for big-ticket, hard-to-find and extremely special things. Why? Because I've been trained to seek them out.

The treasure hunt mentality is one of Costco's founding principles. Diamonds and iPods and plasma TVs are right in there with the ketchup and soap. My favorite-ever Costco purchase was a giant trampoline my family bought when I was 16. More recently, it's been king crab legs, an all-in-one printer and, of course, the chocolate fountain.

What exactly is Costco doing to earn my treasure-hunting dollars? For starters, while a Wal*Mart Supercenter might carry 100,000 items, each Costco only has about 4,000. Yet every one of those items is carefully considered. There aren't 60 kinds of toothpaste; there are two, and both are great. But the great products rotate in and out all the time. Surprises are everywhere. Samples encourage trial. The lenient return policy lessens the risk. Prices drop one day; deals disappear the next. It's a roller coaster of thrills and letdowns.

In 1983, when Costco first appeared on the scene, these seemingly inconsistent practices were certainly not the norm. I have to imagine consumers were initially confused. But over time, Costco has trained its shoppers. Trained them so well that they literally behave differently inside its warehouses than in any other store. Sane, rational people turn into pirates.

Never has this been more evident than in my chocolate fountain shopping trip. When I called the store to check availability, they said it was $37.99, and that they had "about 16 left." I immediately understood that once those 16 were gone, they weren't coming back. I planned to visit the very next day.

Then, when I marched down the appliances aisle and arrived at my coveted fountain, surprise! It was only $19.99! Half price on an already-great deal! I felt like I was beating the system in a big way. Take that, $300 fondue rentals! I grabbed one, found two 5-pound bags of chocolate, and made my way to the front.

But the best part was the checkout. As the cashier was ringing me up, she says, "This is twenty bucks? Are there any more left? Because this would be great for my daughter's wedding." I laughed and told her there were. Then the guy in line behind me starts asking questions. "How much was that? Twenty dollars? What kind of chocolate goes in it? And twenty dollars? Hold on, ma'am, I'm just gonna run back." She goes, "Hey, can you get one for me too?"


Costco shoppers - and employees - are behaving exactly as Costco wants them to. Over many shopping trips and many years, they have learned to expect the unexpected. To recognize a great deal when they see one. To look at what other people have in their carts. To buy things they don't need, simply because they are scarce. To shop the whole store, because a great find could be just around the corner. To visit often, because you never know what you're missing. And to buy it now, because it might not be here tomorrow.

Costco's unique blend of merchandise speaks to both our practical and impractical sides. But the practicality of the bulk of the store affords a little madness. I can imagine typical in-store conversations: "But honey, we saved 100 bucks on tires. We can afford this deep fryer!" "Sweetheart, we saved 60 cents a pound on steaks. Can we please get this memory foam mattress?" Or me: "This item is too cheap, obscure and amazing not to buy!"

Costco, you won me back. I came for the deals, but I stayed for the treasure.