Richard Harding's students at Glendale Community College, many of them supermarket stock clerks, are hungry for the higher salaries and status that come with working behind a cash register. So they pay attention when he cautions them that there is a lot more to being a cashier than just pushing keys and making change.
A good supermarket cashier, he said at a recent class, also has to handle taxes and checks, coupons and food stamps, refunds and specials, scales and carriages, shoplifters and scam artists, unruly customers and the ones who simply want to know whether tomato sauce is near the ketchup, canned vegetables or pasta.
A good cashier has to spot the difference between a McIntosh and a Delicious apple, between a real $20 bill and a phony and between a magazine that is taxable and one that is not. A cashier has to keep customers informed about bargains and the boss aware of cash flow. And a good cashier has to know how to react during a robbery.
Even in these days of electronic checkout scanners, he said, there is a lot to master, all of it to be done with accuracy, speed and a smile.
Public Relations Man
"You are the store's No. 1 public relations man," he announced at the non-tuition grocery cashiering course he has been teaching for five years at the college's Adult Division.
The current class, 22 women and four men, most of them under 30 years old, took careful notes. Competition for advancement from boxer to cashier is fierce, they said. That's why they are going to college to learn the ins and outs of a job not normally associated with higher education.
Cashiers' wages start at $7.08 an hour and can rise to $11.80, contrasted with the $4 an hour starting pay and $4.50 maximum for a box boy, under the current union contract with major supermarket chains.
Most major chains have their own training, but taking a course from a veteran like Harding shows extra initiative and improves a student's odds of succeeding on the job, store and union officials said.
"It puts them one step ahead so they won't be scared stiff," said Ross Hinson, manager of a Lucky store in Eagle Rock.
A rotund man with dark hair and a full beard, Harding worked for 19 years for Ralphs supermarket chain, rising from box boy to assistant manager. He quit in October to take a daytime job at a firm that researches the value of construction projects for insurance companies.
"Working nights and evenings got a bit dragging after 19 years. You start to hear little beeps in your dreams," said Harding, 37, who lives in Tujunga.
Harding's heart still seems to be in supermarkets. He spoke of their intricacies with all the enthusiasm of a Hollywood insider discussing the movie studios.
He emphasized the benefits of cashiering--about how much better the pay and benefits are than for most part-time jobs and how well-suited the possible night hours can be for students or for couples sharing child-care responsibilities.
'Skill to Fall Back On'
Using a phrase often repeated by teacher, students and potential employers, Harding tells his class, "It's a skill you can always fall back on."
Harding, who said he was held up once, said he tells his class of that potential danger "because those things do happen sometimes, not because it's something you should always worry about."
His advice about holdups: "Don't be a hero. Markets are insured and, unfortunately, the few times people got injured was when someone tried to be a hero."
His course is offered four or five times a year. The six-week class meets for three hours twice a week at the college's Montrose campus.
Although Harding would like an electronic scanner, the increasingly popular machines that read computer codes on products and automatically record price and category, the school cannot afford one. Instead, there are two old-fashioned National Cash Register Class 5s and four electronic Data Terminal 120s, both models that require item-by-item punching.
Harding said the old machines have some educational advantages. Not all stores have scanners. And, more importantly, learning how to work a traditional register means that students have to think about each item on the conveyor belt--learning details such as what shelf it's on and what sizes it comes in.
"You learn the store as a whole better than just pushing things past the scanner. It gives you better roots in the business," he said. "Once you understand all these things, you don't need a great amount of intelligence to work on other systems."
Hinson, the Lucky manager, said that it is more important for cashiers to learn how to handle cash and checks and how to talk to customers than how to operate a scanner.
Have to Pass Tests