Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
In an interview with New York magazine in March, David Letterman recalled the time a cashier at DSW sent him into existential crisis. “I’m waiting in line,” the former late-night host related, “and the woman checking people out says in a big loud voice, ‘May I help our next shoe lover, please?’ I just started to tremble.” Worse than the invitation’s presumption of intimacy could be the unholy way it combines stultifying cheerfulness with capitalist coercion. You’re going to buy these shoes, and you’re going to love it.
The Soup Nazi screamed “NEXT!” Sometimes you hear “Ma’am?” and you wonder how old you look that day. Sometimes it’s a smile or a nod or lingering eye contact and the next thing you know you and the barista at Saxbys are in bed together. (This is not something that’s ever happened to me, but I imagine it transpires frequently, what with all the smiling, nodding, and eye contact. Either that or you wind up with three more Luna bars than you wanted.) How do cashiers select the words they use to indicate that it’s your turn? And do they have any choice in the matter?
The 21st-century boilerplate for this interaction is, of course, “May I help the following guest?” which many Slatesters recall leaping to the fore at Starbucks, drugstores, and elsewhere sometime in the previous decade. With its classy substitution of “guest” for “customer” and its ostentatiously grammatical swap of “following” for “next,” the phrase threatens to turn your trip to Staples into an unwritten Bertie Wooster novel. A New York Times article from 2015 conceded: “Clearly the word ‘guest’ is supposed to lend an aura of warmth and welcoming.” But guest—which evokes coffee, biscuits, and a place to sleep—is hardly compatible with jamming your credit card into one of Giant’s chip readers while a bored teenager throws your detergent in a bag. “Be Your Guest? How About I Just Pay and Leave?” the headline complained.
Yet it is tough to fault salespeople (and their corporate overlords) for wishing to wrap us in an illusory heating blanket of kindly intentions. Some employees know that gracious service pays off; others genuinely want to be nice; often it’s a mixture of both. When I started asking friends and colleagues who’ve worked the register about communicating “nextness,” what emerged was a portrait of the contradictions that plague service industries in general. “I can help the next person in line,” said a literalist Urban Outfitters clerk. A cashier at a corner store relied on “subtle umming.” A shy Toys R Us counter drone opted for the minimal “Next, please.” A Nike store employee would occasionally produce “an out-of-the-ordinary noise to get someone’s attention, like ‘Heyyyyooooooooo, next up.’ ” Since he was in Florida, he added, the noise had a way of coming out vaguely Spanish, a polite variation on “oye amigo, look alive.”
Shoppers usually regard a cashier as a mechanism by which to obtain a latte or flat-screen TV. And for the cashier, the guy lugging his swag to the counter represents a simple task to be dispensed with, like a turtle you jump over playing Super Mario Bros. (Most of the jumps are easy, but remember, if you let your concentration flag for even a moment, that turtle could wreck you.) Each transaction involves a two-way depersonalization; yet only one of the sides is forced to pretend that they see the other as an important and multifaceted individual.
Consider the screen glimpsed by reporter Nathan McDermott at his local Starbucks.
“Recognize me,” the directive read, apparently in the customer’s voice. “Include me. Appreciate me. Support me. Delight me.” Is there anything less personal than corporately mandated, one-size-fits-all solicitude? (“Gag me,” one is tempted to reply.)
For all that the archetypal customer experience is being put on hold, it’s the cashiers, suppressing their feelings in the name of efficiency and profit, most often asked to place themselves on hold, and to defer their true emotions and responses until the shift ends. At the same time, an authentic connection can move products, and it makes human beings feel that their work is worthwhile. So what’s the answer—do you, drooping employee, pray for those moments in which capitalist imperatives and inner impulses align? Just get really, really good at faking it?
I had always suspected that modern, ruthlessly customer-focused businesses would mandate a certain greeting, or range of greetings, with the same sterile corporate spirit encapsulated by that Starbucks register screen. But no one remembered following a script. I reached out to the corporate brass at Target, Walmart, Starbucks, CVS Pharmacy, and Walgreens for thoughts on nextness signaling. (Free business jargon for the next retreat, guys!)
None of them got back to me. Insert your joke about poor customer service here.
Reco, 26, works at the counter at an H&M clothing store in D.C. When I approached with a $9.95 pack of underpants that I grabbed out of a bin by the register, he acknowledged me with a radiant smile. He said he switches up his language both to prevent boredom and to deliver a more tailored experience to individual shoppers: “I don’t like to make it too mechanical.” Reco prefers everyday words and gestures—“just smiling and nodding will get you a long way,” he observed. While H&M doesn’t prescribe specific phrases, he thinks the chain’s interview process screens for sunny cashiers like him. He wouldn’t have this job “if I was miserable having to deal with people all the time.”
What about rude people?
“That hasn’t really happened,” Reco said. “Are you going to buy this underwear?”
I also called one of the many Starbucks peppering the neighborhood around Slate’s D.C. office. I spoke to a manager who revealed that the company has no “actual policy” and leaves such matters to the discretion of the local franchise heads. “We do one person at a time,” he said, of his own store, “and we want everyone to feel taken care of. Rudeness isn’t tolerated.” When I pressed him about scripted expressions, he noted the most common ones he hears from his employees are “can I help you?” and “next in line.” But he added that “it is common courtesy to ask what’s going on.”
“Does that mean that Starbucks cashiers will actually say, ‘What’s going on?’ ” I responded, delighted at the caj vibe of such an icebreaker.
Silence. “Would that be a problem?” he asked.
Then I tried to get his name, and he hung up on me. Next!
Actually, can we pause for a second over how great it feels when your turn arrives? This is one of the core paradoxes of “may I help the next person”—that a moment so repetitious and dream-shriveling for the cashier carries such a singular affirmative power for the customer. There you are, waiting for the people ahead of you to resolve their business, sagging a bit under the weight of the social compact that equates every single other schmoe’s desires with yours. And then: The karmic klieg light swivels to soak you in its golden glow.
Whether you are picking up your prescription or buying a bagel, there’s primal, joyful satisfaction in approaching the counter, because you—you!—are “next.” But on the other side of that counter, all of the yous blur together into one long yawn. And by convention, that person, the bored one, is the party that is supposed to act cheerful. And so capitalism goes, until the moment you arrive at the gates of Heaven to find a smiling St. Peter amiably processing his long line of souls. “Oye amigo, look alive,” he’ll joke, at which point a lifetime of consumer interactions will have hopefully taught you how to see past the façade and respond with empathy. Cashiers are there to help the following guest. But God helps those who help themselves.