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What Working At Whole Foods During A Global Pandemic Taught Me About People

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I’m no stranger to retail. Over the last 20-ish years I’ve worked in store and on the road for Best Buy, Waldenbooks, Walmart, and Menards among others. That’s why I applied to a local Whole Foods back in August of 2020. That’s when the airlines were laying off lots of employees (including my wife) and we didn’t know where our income was going to come from once Fall 2020 hit.

I was hired shortly there after to be a backup in-store Amazon Shopper. The idea was basically to pull me in from where ever I was working in the store as needed to fulfill grocery orders fulfilled by staffers at the store. That never happened though. I was trained as a cashier, door greeter, and cart wrangler instead. That went on for months.

I had my temperature taken before clocking in for every shift. If my temperature was elevated at all I would have been sent home, but luckily that never happened. It was months before there was a widely available vaccine and we all still didn’t really understand what the future held for us or if there would even be a post-Covid world.

I interacted with hundreds of customers each day while on and off the clock. All the while wearing my mask, and gloves, and washing/wiping everything down (clothes, masks, food, etc.) before and after a shift. I felt exposed every day, but we needed an income to live. Luckily this was only a stop-gap between me getting a job at a remote-first startup and wife landing an opportunity that ended up letting us get buy a house. We knew none of this at the time though. It was the most vulnerable and frightened any of us had ever been.

People are usually just worried about their own problems.

Unsurprisingly, a grocery store is full of people looking to meet their own needs are not overly concerned with others. The best case scenario for a shopper is the items you’re looking for are in stock, easily found, on sale, and quick to checkout. That was sometimes the case during the workday on a weekday, but it was never the case at our location during the after work rush or on weekends.

The lone exception was on a Sunday during a Bears game. The store went from intensely busy and over crowded in the hours leading up to a game to almost like a ghost town for an hour or two once the game started. It was a well deserved break in the middle of all that chaos.

People often take actions based on feelings and not logic.

Part of what I did when greeting people at the door of our location during the pandemic was to offer them a disinfected cart if they wanted one. I would spray the seat and handles with a cleaner and wipe it down after each use. I would also remind people to pull their masks up over their nose or hand them a disposable mask if they didn’t have one of their own. Often it was a simple interaction that people complied with and was without incident. It usually never went beyond a nod or an embarrassed looked and a trip to the car to retrieve a forgotten mask when someone was on the phone or chatting with a friend on the way in the door.

On one occasion I offered a freshly wiped down cart to a lady coming into the store who very specifically stopped walking at full speed, put he hands in the air and said “Where are the unclean carts?! I want all the germs! It’s all a hoax anyways.” and some other unfounded claims. I gave her a cart that had been brought in without being wiped down first and she kept on ranting as she walked into the store. To her, an avid Faux News watcher no doubt, being “independent” in her thoughts and contrary to science meant more than the scientific logic of doing everything possible within reason to keep herself and others safe.

On the lighter side of the coin of logic vs feelings we had the bakery and ready to eat food options in the store. Yes, having whole wheat bread with turkey might have been a healthier choice, but I saw many people (including myself) get a slice of pizza or chocolate croissant to go instead. I owe my personal fandom of the Hoplark range of teas to my time at Whole Foods. It was often a part of my meal breaks or overnight inventory shifts.

People sometimes take actions that are convenient without thought to how it will affect others.

One of the parts of my job that was enjoyable was cart duty. Yes, I really enjoyed the chance to get some fresh air and run around the parking lot gathering up carts. Sometimes they would be in the cart corral where they should be and other times they were up on the curb like in the photo to the left.

Every once in a while a driver wouldn’t be paying attention and almost hit me, but thankfully I was always able to get out of the way before a car or SUV could make contact! It lead to me always looking around like a paranoid hiker in the wood watching out for bears.

The trash I would find around the store or in our parking lot was something else. Even now, a couple years later, it still bothers me a lot that customers were so entitled to think that they weren’t required to be polite and throw away their own trash in the readily available trash cans in and around the store. Instead they would leave it in carts, or aisles, or on the ground outside for me to pickup.

People like to feel important and will sometimes take actions to show you they are “superior” to you when given a chance.

I learned this through my many interactions with customers and management. Customers who I assume had other stresses going on at home, because the economy was a mess back them, often took it out on us as employees. I had nothing to do with supply chains hiccups or pricing spikes. I did however hear about how terrible our store was for reasons completed outside of out control.

Everyone has to vent, but it is what it is when I look back at this. Do I wish people would have used kinder words and lower volumes at times? Sure. I understand where they were coming from though. We didn’t know if we’d be homeless within a couple of weeks for most of the time I worked at Whole Foods, yet I was able to keep my cool with everyone I interacted with on and off the clock.

I was hired part-time. My intention was to work part-time because of family responsibilities preventing me from working full-time. The scheduling person however liked to schedule me full-time hours in such a way that I was not able to benefit from getting full-time benefits like health insurance or PTO. I found out, after discussing it with my co-workers, that this was standard practice by that particular manager as a way of benefiting the company as much as possible. They were also the “If you have time to lean you have time to clean” type of manager. I was never a fan.

People often enjoy talking more than listening.

I found a few different types of these talkers while working at the grocery store. Sometimes they were the little old lady types that were probably just a bit lonely. They had a story to tell or frustration to share because they didn’t have anyone else who would listen. So, as a cashier, I was a captive audience while I rang up their orders.

Another one of the types were the over bubbly social type. They were ready and happy to talk about what was going on with them that day and had to tell everyone. A birthday, a retirement party, the boss kept them late (but they got overtime), always happy about life types. I questioned (and still do) how genuine such joy was or how much of it was simply a show because they wanted to keep everyone around them distracted from what was going on at the time.

I had several co-workers too who’d tell me about their days off or the store gossip. I connected with a few, but it didn’t last. I enjoyed hearing about what they liked and disliked though. It was sort of like an IRL podcast complete with ad interruptions when customers needed help or managers would check-in.

In the end I left the job because I was being scheduled too many hours to allow me to see my family. I got a remote job that allowed me to stay away from the crowds for a while and to grieve when I lost my dad the next year. It has been almost three years since I worked there, but I still think about it often. All in all I really liked working there. If it paid more I’d go back to it. It made me happy.

Have you worked retail or in a grocery store? What are some things you learned while there? Let me know in the comments and on social.

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