Sticker Fever

I had two choices.

The check-out line on the far right had two customers – both with small amounts of goods. The first was a tourist (and therefore, a wild card). The second was a 20-something Tico. He caught my gaze, smiled and rolled his eyes. I knew without even speaking that he had just performed his own, shopping version of Sophie’s Choice.

The check-out line to the left only had one customer. That customer, a Tica in her forties, had amassed a pile of goods. Her items were scanned and awaited her help to bag them. She, instead, messed with stickers (more on that in a moment).

I had four items. Had I been back in the U.S., I would have gone to the express line, or the self check-out. There is no such thing in my small town.

I watched the activity in each line carefully. None of the shoppers was digging out a list, which is good because a list at the register means that the shopper is here for more than groceries. They are here to pay their electric bill, their water bill, or to recharge their phone. I should add that they might be paying or recharging accounts for friends and family members as well. Lists = bad.

Tourists are a wild card because they are often confused about any number of things, including: Spanish, currency conversions, questions that may or may not relate to groceries, and, lastly, indignation when the price rung up does not agree with their recollection (pricing is often on the aisle, not the item, and sometimes doesn’t exist– and, yes, it’s not unusual for the price shown on the aisle to be different than what the cash register decides).

The experience of the cashier is also key. A new cashier lacks familiarity with all the various payment systems (each utility and phone provider requires a different system). Moreover, a new cashier may have to look up the code for every bit of produce. Perhaps most importantly, a new cashier will likely not be able to smoothly handle the price mismatch.

An experienced cashier will, in my experience, stand by whatever their register says — regardless of the big sign visible from the line that advertises a special, lower price for that particular item. It’s not like they’re going to go on the PA system and ask for a price-check on aisle five, and deleting an item already rung-up requires a manager. If possible, you generally want to avoid involving the manager.

Ticos are unpredictable for more reasons than bill-paying. One teenager in front of you might easily turn into five as their friends join them. Respect for elders, which is to be admired, often means that an elderly person walks to the front of the line. The same treatment also often applies to someone with just a couple of items, though I, Gringo Grande, have never been brave enough to try it. Lastly, our entire area has six or seven thousand full-time residents. Everybody knows everybody. Buying groceries is less of a transaction and more of a social event. Stories are told. The health and welfare of family members is discussed. No hay prisa (there is no rush).

Back in the here and now, the Tica asked her cashier to take the sticker-won pot – which he had unpacked, unwrapped and was giving a thorough inspection – off her bill so it could be rung up separately. That was all I needed. An adjustment to the bill on top of the mountain of goods yet to be bagged? The line with two people had to be better.

Just as I got behind the young Tico, the cashier helping the tourist flipped on his help light. He was calling in the manager. The young Tico groaned, turned back to me and again rolled his eyes. Both of us looked back to the other line, where the cashier was trying to repack the pot into its box. The Tica continued to mess with stickers. No progress was made in the bagging department.

I extended my hand to the young Tico, letting him get in front of me if he decided to change lines. He smiled, shook his head and said, “Me arriesgaré aquí.” (“I’ll take my chances here.”)

The tourist pointed at an aisle behind us and made the case, in broken Spanish, that the item in question was indeed marked at a lower price. It was, therefore, the dreaded price-check. This could go any number of ways. None of them were quick.

I wished the young Tico luck, and reluctantly made my way to the other line. The cashier had managed to put the freshly examined pot back in the box, minus the protective bubble wrap, which he scrunched up and threw on top. The Tica still messed with her stickers, carefully peeling them off one at a time and then pasting them inside a booklet.

The cashier, a friendly but quiet young man, flipped on his help light. I assumed this was because of the Tica’s new desire to pay for the pot separately. I was correct. Shopping had officially come to a standstill.

I should, at this point, explain the sticker situation. A couple of times each year, this chain of stores has a promotion. So many dollars spent equals so many stickers. X number of stickers gets provides discounts on a variety of pots and pans (ultimately, you still pay for the pot, but the stickers drive the price down quite a bit).

This particular promotion had resulted in a large display of pots and pans that weren’t going anywhere. For whatever reason, the store had decided that people would want to pay the equivalent of $30 – $50 bucks for a pot. They were, of course, wrong.

One of my four items was a large pot. I hadn’t been willing to fork over the original sticker-discounted amount, which was about $35, but the store acknowledged their early optimism and had just dropped the price by about a third. I’m the kind of guy that can’t walk away from a deeply discounted pot. The full booklet of stickers was burning a hole in my pocket — a mild to moderate case of sticker fever.

I exchanged pleasantries with the cashier, and we both turned and stared at the Tica, still messing with stickers. If she noticed, she did a good job hiding it.

I shot a glance back over to the other line, where another tourist was now behind the young Tico. The manager came to my line first and did her magic with the reqister. The Tica stopped messing with stickers long enough to pay. A glimmer of hope grew within my aged heart. I might have actually picked the winning line.

That hope soon dimmed as the Tica produced yet another booklet, which she began to fill with more stickers (it finally dawned on me that she was using the mass of stickers she’d just earned her large purchase — presumably to buy more pots on this same trip). The cashier watched for a while, then politely asked if she could bag her goods so he could help other customers. She briefly looked up at me, then went back to her stickers. The cashier caught my eye and shrugged. The Tica had sticker fever.

The cashier and I watched her for a while, then he sighed and began bagging her groceries. She left her empty cart blocking my path but did move to the end of the bagging area while the cashier did her work. As I pushed her cart out of my way, I looked over to see the young Tico waving at me at he walked towards the exit. That had been the quickest price-check in the history of the store. I had, once again, chosen poorly.

Back in my line, the cashier continued to bag the Tica’s goods. She looked up from time to time and disagreed with his bagging choices, causing him to redo his work. She was now on her third sticker booklet.

Several more customers were now in the other line, which was moving rapidly. No one was foolish enough to be behind me. I was stuck.

Eventually, my cashier cleared enough space in the bagging area for my items, which included a couple of large bags of charcoal. He rang up my pot first, accepted my sticker booklet, and then performed the elongated inspection process of the pot. Once satisfied that he wasn’t giving me a defective pot, he placed the repacked box to the side, just above the Tica’s remaining groceries.

I went to the end to put my things in my cart, but the Tica wouldn’t move. After I asked her nicely for some space to get my things, she took a half-step to her right — without making eye contact, as she only had eyes for her stickers. I squeezed in, got my things in the cart, and paid.

Rolling my cart out of the store, I tried not to notice the crowd of entirely new customers who were flying through the other line. I did take a glance back at my unhappy cashier, who had given up and now bagged the rest of the Tica’s items.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized my new, cherished, sticker-won pot had not made the trip. In all of the fun, and confusion, it had never left the bagging area. I drove back to the store. The Tica was, finally, gone – as was my pot.

This turn of events sent me down a rabbit hole of despair. Fortunately, the cashier let me pick out a new pot, which he thoroughly inspected, and I eventually returned home.

My sticker fever has officially passed.

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