All I Need to Know I Learned in C-Town

The first sign of a nervous breakdown is when you start thinking your work is terribly important. – Milo Bloom

My first paid job was as a cashier at our local C-Town. I was 15 years old and making $3.35 an hour and, as a result of labor laws, clocked in no more than 18 hours a week (my mother and C-Town would be pleased that I pointed that out). I worked at C-Town, which later became King Kullen and then later Key Food, for three years until I upgraded to a store manager position at our local mom-and-pop pharmacy (in case you’re worried that the title “manager” went to my head, see role clarification below). Between my experience as a cashier and local manager, I learned everything I needed to know to be successful in my career, and I have to admit, those jobs still remain my favorite. Too bad I can’t support a family on $30 a week.

I should add a disclaimer here for anyone reading this who is under 18: despite my learning everything I needed to know prior to college, college is still a good idea. There’s no better way to gain your freedom and make lifelong friends. And you’ll have the opportunity to pledge for a fraternity or sorority, which will require you to learn the Greek alphabet and I’m all for that.

Anyway, here are the top three career lessons I learned in C-Town:

  • Every job is a client services job. My clients – or customers – when I worked at C-Town usually had one thing in mind: to buy what they needed and to leave the store. This required me to help them achieve this as quickly as possible. For example, knowing which shelf the McCormick Beef Stew Seasoning was stocked on was a big help to someone running around with a 3lb rump roast; knowing the produce code of a persimmon (um, even knowing what a persimmon is) would help keep my line moving quickly; being careful to not charge the customer for two gallons of milk when they’re only buying one (and then making them wait 20 minutes for a refund) was critical. Now, these were all the things that were expected of me, but to make this a true client services role, I had to think beyond my role. For example, did the mom with one free hand prefer five bags or perhaps two that she could easily maneuver with her free hand? Did the elderly lady want all her cans in one bag? I assume not. Sizing up my audience and customers was very important even when it was just about bagging groceries.
  • Titles mean nothing and everything. When I became a manager, my parents were very impressed. Clearly, even if I was 17, I had somehow made it. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t really managing anyone except myself (no small task, I should add). Honestly, at the time, I thought the only type of manager one could be was one that managed someone else (a.k.a, someone who tells someone what to do). As the manager of this mom-and-pop pharmacy, my job was to manage the store. This required me to make sure the store was constantly stocked with the right merchandise. Easy, right? Well, thankfully I had a very understanding boss, because even though the pharmacy was located next to a pediatrician’s emergency clinic, I had somehow failed to keep stock on the essential items a new parent would need for a sick child…like Tylenol. So, when angry parents flooded the store looking for Tylenol and it was nowhere to be found, guess who they blamed? The manager: me. Moral of the story: no one cares about your fancy title unless they’re looking for someone to complain to.
  • Every job is a client services job. The pharmacists I worked for were from Bangladesh. When I asked them why they hired me, without hesitation they looked at me straight in the eye and in harmony responded, “You’re a white, Greek woman. Our customers are white, Greek women.” So, they weren’t the most PC bunch, but they were getting to something very important. They hired me to do more than keep their shelves stocked (which clearly, I wasn’t doing well) and to mind the cash register. They hired me because they wanted me to serve their core clientele. In fact, they wanted me spending less time behind the register and more time in the aisles with customers. In order to provide guidance, I had to stretch beyond what I knew and into helping the clients make informed choices about important purchase decisions. More or less, what I do today at a larger scale.

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