Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bag-Packing, A Sociological Observation.

I have just spent the morning in a supermarket helping out at a fundraiser for my son's sports club by packing grocery bags for shoppers in the hope that they'll throw their spare change into the collection bucket. Easy enough money with no overhead costs, all you need is volunteers.

Now I am no stranger to either packing groceries or working with the public.  My teenage years were funded by this very activity as my weekend job, and that of practically every Irish teenager at the time, was a casual worker for the first Irish supermarket chain to introduce the service of packing groceries. The after school and weekend hours were often tedious and boring with every customer basically saying the same thing: "Lovely day we're having" or "Bad day we're having" over and over and over again.  However I didn't really mind too much as the allure of new clothes saved up for or a night at the local teenage disco made up for the repetitive work and the occasional unpleasantly over broken eggs or some such mishap. By and large though, people were generally friendly and appreciative.  By the time we were finished, a stint working for this particular supermarket was a bonus on any teen CV as the company was known for it's standard of excellence. We knew how to work and the founder and CEO instilled a work ethic in his teen brigade. Do the job and do it right and the customer will return.  Staff wore lapel pins of a boomerang depicting this ethos.

I went on to work with the public after I left college.  I worked in an environment quite opposite to that I had left.  Unless an employees work ethic came from within there was no incentive whatsoever to put in a good day's work.  In fact good workers were often ostracised because they showed up the others.  The Chiefs despised the Indians and indemic bullying was the norm. So babyish. However, one thing was so eye-opening was the public.  At the time, most people were neither here nor there, neither unpleasant not pleasant. Most still said please and thank you, apart from third level students that is.  Those words seemed pretty alien to them or maybe they felt they were too hip and cool for social niceties to cross their lips.  Since I was roughly the same age or just slightly older than most of them I wasn't backward at asking them right out for the Magic Word! Especially since they were often hoping I'd actually DO their tardy course work for them...the bits their Mammy hadn't already done, and it was usually due tomorrow or yesterday. I had the upper hand!

Then there was the folk who would just lift your day just by being themselves.  so friendly and warm.  My favourite in particular was a man who had Down Syndrome who always dressed in a suit and fedora hat and carried a black umbrella and briefcase.  He was so proud of his smart appearance and his research work. When he'd leave, he'd leave in his wake a feeling that life is good and it's good to be here.  Wonderful. I wonder where he is now.

Then there was the minority.  Oh deary me, the miserable minority.  Scowling, grumpy, fault-finding nasty minority.  I'll just leave it at that.

Anyway, back to my fundraising contribution this morning.  Now if I know anything, it's how to pack bags.  I have six grocery trolley is sizeable.  I'm always in a hurry and I like my groceries intact. So apart from my early 'training', I'm good and I'm speedy. No eggs will break on my watch.  I think I look capable enough. I think I look pretty much what I am...a mother well used to supermarket shopping.  I think I look like I can capably pack your shopping, saving you some time and effort in return for your contribution should you want to make one.  It was an interesting window through which to study people. I was reminded of things I'd noticed years ago and forgotten.  I was treated in ways I'd encountered before but which genuinely surprised me as a mature adult as opposed to a young person. It was a look at a part of life that is no longer mine and I am left less than comfortable with some of what I observed. Not because I personally was treated in any particular way but because anybody would be treated in that way.

Here are some of my observations.

One...a smile costs nothing.  Do you realise how few smiles people who work in retail receive? Very few.

Please and thank you also cost nothing.

Old people who shop as a couple are maybe the nicest people you could meet.

People who bought the most possible with the least amount of money and had carefully counted coupons and small change tended to be very generous and appreciative of the help offered with packing their purchases.

People buying most luxury items were least likely to acknowledge that their bags had been magically and perfectly packed and walk off without contributing.  Some had no coins to offer but apologised and were thankful anyway. I certainly didn't mind in the slightest.

Teenagers stuffing bottles of vodka into handbags in anticipation of the upcoming evening...not cool.

People with clearly tight budgets were often making very poor food choices.  Very few fresh foods or vegetables.  A lot of the bulk of shopping was highly processed very cheap foods with little nutritional value. This should be addressed.  A lot of these families are headed by single parent early school-leavers.  The short time spent in education would be well served by a robust home management/food programme.  So easy and obvious when you know but not so obvious when one is in the cycle of poverty.

The words thank you came mostly out of those who appeared poorer.

It can take very little effort to strike up an interesting conversation with some people.  I heard quite a few reminisces and life's anecdotes.

Some people are delightful.  Old people are mostly delightful.

Some people are just not nice.

I remember why when I was working, staff far far preferred to be appointed to the poorest parts of the inner city or working class estates than to wealthy affluent postal districts.  Honestly, just because someone is doing you a job of service does not mean that that person is less that you.

Just because your income is higher than the girl at the check-out does not entitle you to speak down to her.  I have been watching her, she goes to a lot of effort to be friendly to you who does not return the common manners

If you prefer to pack your own bags, there's no need to rudely announce it's because only you knows how to pack bags properly.  Believe me Ma'am, you did not pack your bags properly.  Cooked and raw meats should NOT be in the same bag, rude lady.

If you prefer to pack your own bag don't act as though the person offering to help is the dirt off your shoes.

It's a sad indictment that the better dressed you are, Lady, the ruder you are because you think someone else is less than you.  They're not. That someone's job may seem menial to you does not justify your lack of common manners to them.

Being rude to kids fundraising is NOT ON. Yuk!

Dear vegan with a wan child dressed in unbleached knits...that your groceries are so so expensive does not necessarily mean they are good nutritional choices, alternative and unappetising and all as they may be.

Dear woman who rudely shoved me aside so you could pack your bags in a superior fashion,  I hope that bottle of shampoo you shoved upside-down on top of perishable foods didn't actually do that thing I wished it would.

But most people are lovely.

Especially old people.

Especially old people who are poor.


  1. Found myself nodding in agreement and recognition at all of this Jennifer. It has been my experience in the last 5 years or so of fundraising and volunteer work that those with the least give the most. Also the smile thing - you are so right. It costs nothing and gives such a lift. The most warm banter can be had at the checkout in the local supermarket if you are up for it.


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