Barnes & Noble: Know Your Customers

Note: This is a little something I wrote several years ago when I was working at Barnes & Noble. I’m posting it today so I can link to it from 101 Books (a great blog you should subscribe to if you haven’t already). The friends and co-workers it was originally written for were well-acquainted with my playfully un-PC sense of humor and had learned to take it with several grains of salt (or, in many cases, a good round of grudging laughter). If you and I are not personal friends, dear reader, please know that phrases such as “shopping like a bitch” are uttered with my tongue firmly placed inside my cheek. 🙂  Enjoy.


As a valued member of the Barnes & Noble team, you may occasionally be asked to help out at the cash registers (an area of the store which we in the biz call “Cash/Wrap”). For most customers, Cash/Wrap is the final destination. Here, they will pay for the items they’ve selected and develop their final impression of our store. Thus, it’s very important for you to make sure they have a pleasant experience and that all of their needs have been addressed. By doing this, you will help to increase the number of customers who return to our store for future purchases, which equals more sales and more hours for everyone!
One of the best ways to ensure success at Cash/Wrap is to learn how to identify certain customer types. This will help you to engage each customer on their own level so you can provide them with the kind of shopping experience they will find most desirable. To that end, we would like to provide you with the following list of recurring customer behavior patterns . Please consult this list often as a means of improving your work performance and increasing customer satisfaction

(1) The Hovercraft
Though the line at Cash/Wrap is clearly marked with a sign that reads “Please Wait Here,” very few people will actually stand and wait to be called. Instead, they will simply approach the first available checkout person, slam their books down on the counter, and expect the checkout process to begin automatically. The Hovercraft takes this practice to the next level by standing so close to the person in front of them that you assume they are together. Once you’ve properly identified a Hovercraft in the act of hovering, the best thing to say is, “Okay, now, are we ringing these orders up separately, or did you want to put everything together?” At this point, the Hovercraft is usually embarrassed and has to sheepishly admit that they’re not actually with the person they’re so busy breathing all over. The other customer, grateful that you’ve subtly defended their personal space, is now eager to please and can often be talked into purchasing the Barnes & Noble Member Card.

(2) The Cranberry
In the 1990s, a little-known alternative band called The Cranberries released a hit song that asked the simple question “Do you have to let it linger?” Incidentally, this is the same question you’ll want to ask The Cranberry, a type of customer named in the band’s honor. The Cranberry is a customer who lingers around for an inordinate amount of time after their transaction has ended. Sometimes they linger to talk. Sometimes they linger so they can get the bills in their wallet arranged just right. Sometimes they linger so they can balance their checkbook. Whatever it is, they linger…and they usually hold up the line in the process. Though you may be tempted to be passive-aggressive and say something like “M’aam, did you need help with anything else today?” you’re only inviting trouble by giving the Cranberry a chance to start talking. The best thing to do is to simply wave the next customer up to the register and crowd the Cranberry away.

(3) The Multiple Choice Test
Perhaps your most important job duty while working at Cash/Wrap is your sale and promotion of the Barnes & Noble Membership Card. Available for a reasonable annual fee, the membership card is our way of providing our regular customers with a variety of benefits and savings. If a customer happens to leave their card at home, their account can quickly be accessed using nothing but their phone number. Needless to say, this is incredibly convenient for both you and your customers…until, of course, you’re faced with a Multiple Choice Test. The Multiple Choice Test thinks they have a membership card but isn’t really sure. So, just to be on the safe side (lest they pay 30 cents too much for their bookmark), they’ll give you every phone number they’ve ever had in the hopes that one of them will be tied to a membership account. “Try this number,” they’ll tell you. When that number produces no results, they’ll say, “That’s not it? Try this one….That didn’t work either? Try this one…this one?…this one?…” Once you become convinced that the Multiple Choice Test doesn’t actually have a membership card, it’s best to let them down easy by reminding them that the card expires every year. At that point, they usually give up, saying, “Well, it’s definitely been more than a year.” If that doesn’t work, try deflection: “Are you sure it was Barnes & Noble? Was it Borders maybe? Or Books-A-Million?” Desperate to save face, they almost always give up and say, “You know what? I think it was Books-A-Million.” And if that doesn’t work, it’s best to simply tune out any other numbers they try to offer and proceed with the transaction.

(4) The Darwin
If you’ve ever doubted the Theory of Evolution, working at Cash/Wrap will put those doubts to bed once and for all. Some customers, you see, are positively primitive when they approach the cash registers. These customers, usually female, are the Darwins. Unable to simply pay for their items and leave, the Darwin will pause several times throughout her transaction to pick up and look at every item that catches her eye – as if she is a cave person in search of twigs and berries. Magazines. Mini-kits. The store’s holiday decorations. The Darwin has to inspect everything. Often, they will walk away from the register altogether, pursuing something they see off in the distance. Is it mud they can use to build a hut? Sticks they can use to start a fire? Who knows? All we know is that the best way to handle a Darwin is to say, “M’aam, would you mind if I ring the next customer up while you take a few more minutes to shop?” The Darwin will usually take the hint and hurry up OR tell you it’s no problem. (They’re appreciative that you’ve invited them to keep monkeying around for a few minutes without holding up the line.) Either way, it makes the next person in line very happy, which makes them open to your suggestion that they purchase the member card. Everybody wins.

(5) The S.L.A.B.
Simply put, the S.L.A.B. (or simply, “Slab”) is a male version of the Darwin. Most people acknowledge the fact that women spend more time on their shopping than men do. So, when a male customer approaches your register and suddenly tunes you out so he can look at a magazine, or walks off to grab a Desktop Aquarium on the mini-kit spinner, or asks a question about something he sees behind you, it’s safe to identify him as a Slab. S.L.A.B., after all, is a term that describes any man who is Shopping Like A Bitch. Handle a S.L.A.B. the same way you’d handle a Darwin.

(6) The Retro Shopper
Because Cash/Wrap is situated near the front of the store, you will often be approached by customers who are too lazy to look around and realize that we have a Customer Service desk located just a few feet away from them. At least one of these customers is bound to be a Retro Shopper. Living in the recent past, the Retro Shopper is a customer looking for something they saw in the store two or three weeks earlier. “It was right over here,” they often say, pointing to some area of the store you’ve never noticed before. “It had a red cover. I don’t remember the name, but it was about pottery…” If the Retro Shopper is a senior citizen (and they usually are), be prepared for them to be confused that you can’t just “type ‘red book’ in your computer and pull it up.” Best thing to do? Direct them to Customer Service and encourage them not to wait when they see something they want. “You’ve got to buy that stuff right away, because it goes quick!”

(7) The Transfer Customer
A variation of the Retro Shopper, the Transfer Customer is someone who comes to one Barnes & Noble location looking for something they saw at another. Why the Transfer Customer didn’t simply buy the item they’re looking for when they first saw it will often remain a mystery. Transfer Customers have an odd habit of looking for something they have no reason to expect in this particular store. A statement typical of a Transfer Customer might be: “Do y’all have a book about all the different kinds of alligators in Florida?…I saw one at the Barnes & Noble in Tallahassee.” Best thing to do? Tell them we can order one if they can get an ISBN number. Otherwise, they might just wanna take their asses back to Tallahassee.

(8) The Telescope
According to our home office, the average Cash/Wrap transaction should last about 2 minutes – just long enough to be polite without giving customers a chance to get too terribly comfortable (remember: they’re our guests, but they don’t live here). In spite of this relatively short time and the string of questions they are asked to answer, however, some customers still find a way to tune out and start staring off into space as if they haven’t just approached you with a stack of merchandise they want to purchase. This kind of customer (The Telescope) is being rude without realizing it, and the best way to correct the situation is to be rude on purpose. Try dropping one of their books or saying “Sir! Sir!” with force and volume. Few things are as satisfying as startling a Telescope out of their stupor. Ring them up quickly and get ’em the hell out of here. This isn’t the solar system. There’s nothing to see here.

(9) The Boomerang
Of all the customers you’ll spot while working at Cash/Wrap, the Boomerang is perhaps the one you’ll spot most frequently and with the greatest ease. The Boomerang is a customer who lacks the ability to pay for all of their purchases at the same time and who, therefore, has to make multiple trips through the line in order to get everything they want. Like the Australian toy that gives them their name, Boomerangs come back to you again and again and again, no matter how many times you throw them away. You’ll ring a Boomerang up, tell them to have a nice day, and then ring them up again five minutes later…and then five minutes after that…and then five minutes after that. Many Boomerangs come by their titles accidentally. For example, they may spot something they missed on their way out of the store and come back through the line to purchase it. Others, though, seem to “boomerang” on purpose by leaving Cash/Wrap and then heading directly back into the store to do more shopping. The Boomerang will often try to make light of this behavior by laughing and saying things like “Boy, I just can’t get out of here!” or “It’s me again!” or “I just came in here for one thing!” The best thing to do once they come through for their third or fourth trip is to say, “Hey, if you’re doing this much shopping, you should really think about getting the membership card…”

(10) The Extraterrestrial (“E.T.”)
E.T. Phone Home! Did you think Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece about the benevolent alien and his friend Elliott ended when E.T. flew away in his spaceship? Think again. E.T. visits Cash/Wrap at least three or four times a day, and as always, he’s constantly trying to “phone home.”An E.T. is a customer who energetically talks on his or her cell phone throughout their transaction. Sometimes the E.T. will put the person they’re talking to on hold just long enough to let you know that they have the Barnes & Noble Membership Card and are expecting a full discount. More often than not, however, the E.T. will simply tune you out and refuse to acknowledge your existence altogether. This is not necessarily a bad thing (who can complain about not having to talk to a customer?), but please be forewarned that an E.T. may occasionally come back through the line and ask, “Did you get my membership number?” (as if you were supposed to just magically know it somehow). The best thing to do in this situation is to say, simply and politely, “No m’aam (or sir), I didn’t want to interrupt your conversation.” At this point, the E.T. is forced to acknowledge their tackiness and, hopefully, will be inspired not to do that shit again.

(11) The Packrat
From time to time – and especially during the holiday shopping season – a number of packrats will come out of the woodwork to go shopping at Barnes & Noble. As their name suggests, packrats love to make large piles of books and other merchandise as they go about their shopping. Once these piles become too large, packrats have been known to do one of two things with them: (1) simply abandon the piles in some remote corner of the store (usually newsstand or cafe’); or (2) bring them to Cash/Wrap and ask “if there’s any way you could maybe keep these back there somewhere while I do some more shopping.” Though this is not an especially difficult request, many packrats will abuse the privilege and start bringing every single item they want to purchase to the register, one-at-a-time, and asking if you can add them to the pile. In other words, once a packrat realizes that they don’t have to carry their large piles around the store with them, they suddenly decide that they don’t really feel like carrying anything else around either. There’s really nothing you can do about this behavior except to make sure that they purchase the member card. Tell them it can be theirs for a $25.00 storage fee.

(12) The Check Writer
Fairly self-explanatory and easy to spot, the Check Writer is a customer who, even now, in the age of easy cash and electronic transactions, feels the need to create a written record of their every purchase. Usually elderly, the Check Writer has a tendency to show up when there is only one person working at Cash/Wrap or, conversely, right in the middle of a long line. Not surprisingly, the process of writing and processing a check is somewhat time-consuming and can easily create a long line of impatient, irritated customers (a quick survey of facial expressions will demonstrate how much everybody hates check writers). When you spot a customer about to write a check (or, an early warning sign, when a customer asks if they can borrow your pen), it’s best to go ahead and call for backup. And make sure you explain – loud enough so that the offending party will hear you – that the reason you’re calling for backup is because “someone’s writing a check.”

(13) The Coupon Dictator
In spite of the fact that Barnes & Noble has a notoriously easygoing reputation in terms of its customer relations (i.e. customers are allowed to sit in the store and read books all day without paying for them; we never refuse store credit or refunds to anyone who returns something; etc.) certain customers still come into the store convinced that we are actively trying to rip them off and/or minimize their savings. These customers are called Coupon Dictators. True to their titles, Coupon Dictators bring books to Cash/Wrap and, before you can even ask them how their day is going, begin to dictate exactly how the transaction is about to go down. “I have the member card,” they usually begin. “And I have two coupons that don’t expire until next Sunday. So I want this coupon to go on this book, and then I want this coupon to go on this book…Oh, and put this book back. I’ve decided I don’t want it.” In the Coupon Dictator’s mind this kind of heavy-handedness is absolutely necessary – because, you know, if they didn’t tell us what to do, we’d apply their coupons to the cheapest items they’re buying so we could save money and feed our insatiable corporate greed. That’s why the simple reassurance that our coupons always and automatically apply to the most expensive items is so valuable. Not only is it a good policy, it’s also a nice way of saying, “It’s gonna be okay, Coupon Dictator. We’re gonna save you as much money as we possibly can…so why don’t you just chill the fuck out?”

(14) The Comment Card
One of the most common types of customer in existence, the Comment Card is a customer who doesn’t just buy things, they explain why they’re buying them. In great detail. Regardless of how many people are in line behind them. Comment Cards take many forms, including (but not limited to) the Proud Grandparent, the Big Fan, and the Political Agitator. When dealing with these customers, routine transactions can be suddenly infused with unsolicited commentary like: “I’m getting these Junie B. Jones books for my granddaughter. Boy, that child just LOVES to read! I’ve never seen anything like it. I said, ‘Now, Maddie, what do you want Mee Maw to get you for Christmas?’ and she just said, ‘Mee Maw, I want the Junie B. Jones books.’ Can you imagine that? A child – she’s only 7! – asking for books for Christmas?! I don’t think you see that too much these days. But she’s so bright. Her teacher says she’s one of the brightest ones in her class. And she just reads and reads and reads. Boy, I bring her in here and she just can’t get enough. I’m like, ‘Maddie, where do you wanna go today?’ and she says, ‘Mee Maw, let’s go to the bookstore.’ And I tell you, she’ll just spend HOURS in here! You can’t stop that child from reading!”…There’s really nothing you can do when a Comment Card gets started except to hurry through the transaction and wave the next person through, even if it means interrupting the Comment Card’s sermon about their brilliant grandchild, their boundless love for Twilight, or the way everything that happens for the next 100 years is all George Bush’s fault. They won’t care that you interrupt them, because, truth be told, they’re not paying attention to you anyway. The commentary continues with or without you…

(15) The Energizer Bunny
Want a transaction that keeps going and going and going and going? If so, just get an Energizer Bunny to come through your line. Like rabbits, the Energizer Bunnies (or “Bunnies” for short) are customers who reproduce every 9 to 10 months. Then, once they’ve achieved a sufficient litter – say, four or five kids – they buy each one a Barnes & Noble gift card and bring them in for a big, loud family shopping day. Hoping to maintain the peace between their offspring, the Bunnies will insist that you ring each child up as a separate transaction. Predictably, none of these five kids will have enough money on their gift cards to pay for everything they want. When the Bunny explains that they’ll have to put something back, each kid will launch into a pout-fest and argument that spans at least a minute and a half. This will happen five times. Ten minutes later, the entire spectacle will climax with the Energizer Bunny asking, “Can you put all their stuff in separate bags?” In terms of wasteful time consumption, the Energizer Bunny actually rivals the Check Writer and will require backup. There’s no skill here. Just hustle. And the next time you see them coming, go on break.

About J. Wiltz

"Well, you know, there really isn't very much to say about me." - Andy Warhol
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