I recently paid a visit to Walmart, one of my favorite people-watching locations. Proceeding to the checkout with an armful of items, I was shocked to find myself behind only one other customer. It was a young woman accompanied by what I assumed to be her mother and her young daughter. They had a cart full of groceries but, fortunately for me, the clerk had scanned just about all of them by the time I walked up. It looked like my wait would short.
Placing the last items into a bag, the clerk announced the total and the customer swiped the card in her hand – a Walmart gift card. “How lucky,” I thought. “Wish I had a gift card to cover my purchases.” But the color drained from her face when the clerk announced there was just over $23 left to pay. The gift card didn’t cover everything this family had picked up.
The two women searched their purses for a minute, but it was obvious they didn’t have any cash or other method of payment. So began the humiliating ritual of identifying items to put back so they could reduce the total bill. I watched for a few seconds as they removed some of their basic grocery items, trying hard to avoid looking at me. They hadn’t been spending frivolously; from my vantage point, everything they had bought belonged in the typical pantry or refrigerator.
I pulled out my wallet and told the cashier I’d like to cover the remainder of their bill, including what they had pulled out to return. Please understand, I’m not writing about this to brag on myself. I’m blessed beyond measure and could afford to pay the $23 they owed in addition to my own purchases. I didn’t do this for attention or for any other of self-serving reason. I only decided to write about this because of the looks on the faces of the ladies in line with me that day.
Everyone seemed absolutely shocked by by what I had done.
The adult customers fell over themselves thanking me. Their gratitude was almost embarrassing. They obviously did not expect anyone to bail them out in that moment. Remember, when I walked up they were almost finished; there was no apparent rescuer in sight. They thanked me again and again. They apologized for not having another card or cash to cover their own expenses.
The young girl just stared at me in awe. Perhaps she’d never witnessed an act of service like this before. Maybe later she would ask her mother what happened and learn how sometimes people help each other out simply because it’s the right thing to do. I hope she is inspired to do the same when the opportunity presents itself.
It was the cashier’s face that has stuck with me though. When I offered to pay for someone else’s groceries, her face took on a mask of disbelief. I bet she’s encountered many a customer who couldn’t pay for all of their purchases and had to sheepishly return some items. She’s probably seen that so many times that she’s become desensitized to it. I imagine she stands by, dispassionately watching as the customer scrambles to escape their embarrassment. I imagine she rarely witnesses someone else stepping in to help out.
It occurs to me that this should be our service mission – to shock those who witness us in action. Talk about a competitive advantage. What if our acts of service were so powerful that they left people in a state of profound gratitude, wonder, or disbelief? Imagine providing a service experience that completely upends someone’s paradigm. What does it take to do that? Not much apparently; maybe $23. Probably a lot less.
So why aren’t we doing it?