My boyfriend, in the spirit of a pre-Valentine’s Day celebration, spared me the burden of grocery shopping this week and set out to replenish our cupboards before yet another potentially crippling snowstorm hits New York. We are both proud to be bargain shoppers, following weekly circulars, clipping coupons and reading blogs about frugal finds. He set out (after my gentle but insistent persuasion) to Western Beef, a local discount grocer that is an additional ten block walk from our apartment and offers savings that may not be found in our nearby and smaller gourmet markets.
My carnivorous boyfriend set out with a backpack and circular, determined to load up on the cheapest and best finds at Western Beef. After a half hour spent filling his cart with various meats, cleaning supplies, produce, sauces, and pasta, he approached the checkout queue with trepidation. Without my keen eye to oversee the checkout, he was worried he would miss being overcharged for an item advertised on sale (an often occurring phenomenon for the busy Manhattanite shopper who is too hurried to notice).
His checkout began smoothly and accordingly (or so he thought) until he noticed a discrepancy in price for two jars of pasta sauce of the same brand. He inquired why only one of the items was on sale and was informed that the difference between home-style and traditional varieties affected the purchase price. He requested to return the more expensive variety and the cashier alerted the manager that she needed to void a transaction. The manager, somewhat suspicious, had been watching the cashier and approached the register. She voided the item and reviewed all the purchases on the receipt.
“Where are the potato chips? I saw you ring up chips,” the manager stated to the cashier.
“What chips? What chips? I don’t see chips!” the cashier frantically proclaimed. My boyfriend was confused, at first assuming that the manager was the problem.
“Yeah. I didn’t purchase potato chips. I don’t want chips,” my boyfriend responded.
The cashier, who had been noshing on potato chips while checking out my boyfriend’s items, came to his defense. “Yeah, he didn’t buy any chips.”
In a moment of confusion, it quickly became clear to my boyfriend and the already astute manager that the cashier had charged my boyfriend for the chips she was consuming. The awkwardness of the situation rendered him speechless. They all looked at the chips that had been charged to my boyfriend and rather than apologize, the cashier did little more than continue her defense that he did not buy chips.
The manager corrected and voided the unwanted pasta sauce and chips. The cashier was allowed to continue ringing up his items and my boyfriend was torn between wondering why she was not fired on the spot and empathizing with the circumstances that may lead to such an act. Maybe she saw a man, in a neighborhood overrun with Trump towers, as a source of wealth that could overlook the unwarranted charge, instead of a man who has struggled with the rest of the long-term unemployed in this country and really needed to save money wherever possible. Perhaps she somehow justified it by feeling entitled to something more than the wages she received. Or maybe she just couldn’t fight the irresistible urge that the commercials for Lay’s potato chips warn us about.
My boyfriend and I often argue about the injustice in paying employees so little that after taxes a McDonald’s or Starbuck’s employee can barely afford a few items off the menu after an hour of work. As two sometimes struggling residents of an affluent neighborhood, we are no strangers to income inequality, but wonder if our own obsession with finding the best deal is as much a part of the problem, contributing to companies paying employees less to keep costs lower for consumers. Under no circumstance is it justifiable for a cashier to wrongly charge a customer for his or her purchases, but is it possible to understand why someone would do it?
It’s a bit disturbing to know we not only need to be suspect of price gauging and being overcharged by careless errors, but also by the intentional acts of disgruntled employees. Will it change our purchasing habits? No, I’d imagine we will still occasionally frequent the deals available at Western Beef and other discount stores in our incredibly expensive city. Such shopping habits will come with even more scrutiny at checkout and an uncomfortable mix of empathy and distrust for the store and it’s employees. But somehow (and perhaps this is where empathy and guilt run amok in our minds), we cannot help but feel a bit terrible about what this small incident says about the bigger picture of being a consumer in America.