Donna Horak, 54, slowly unloaded her cart at the supermarket cash register — one item after another, piling them high onto the belt. Fuming, Keith Choice, 27, waited behind her, clutching his one item, highly irritated.
Fed up, Horak turned on her heel and addressed Choice directly.
"I was here first," she said. "It doesn't matter how many items you have."
And that's when Monique Oakman, a longtime supermarket trainer, spoke up. It was her job, late in June, to turn a class of Horak, Choice, and 20 other people with criminal records into polished, polite, and professional cashiers for Brown's Superstores, a chain of 13 local ShopRite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets led by chief executive Jeffrey Brown. They began their first day of work Thursday.
Brown had promised that all the students who graduated from an Uplift Workforce Solutions six-week class would get jobs as cashiers, and that day, there was a dress rehearsal, absent the uniform and real money. Cash registers and shelves stocked with groceries had been set up to create a model checkout line at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, which provided a classroom for the program. The students themselves had written the scenarios.
"What should the cashier do?" Oakman asked.
"This is your line and you have to control it," Oakman told a classroom of students, all with criminal records.
Hands rose when she asked them what the cashier could do to alleviate a potentially tense situation in which a customer with only one item was stuck in line behind someone with a basket full of groceries.
"Direct the person to the self-service line," someone suggested.
"Apologize," someone else suggested, evoking their customer-service acronym, CALM — be calm, apologize, listen, and make it right.
"Ask the first customer, `Would you mind if I take him first?' "
Every answer suggested was right on the money, Oakman said, reminding the group to call a manager if the situation gets too tense. "Step away from the situation. Lock the cash drawer and remove yourself. We're not hiring you to be abused. Not physically, not mentally, no kind of way. Just get yourself out of the situation, just back away."
A senior citizen comes in to shop, planning to use her senior citizen discount, as is customary on Wednesdays.
The only problem: It's Tuesday.
"Your discount ain't today," said the "cashier," a student role-playing a scenario she might encounter at work as a supermarket cashier.
"I need my 6 percent discount because I don't have enough money," another student said, playing the role of the senior citizen shopper.
The cashier suggested she talk to a manager.
"I can't walk that far," the "senior citizen" complained.
"It's a little sketchy situation," Oakman said.
"We never ask for an ID for a senior citizen. If they say they are 60, we don't go back and forth. Mind you, a lot of people are in that situation, and they are our regular customers, so we know them," Oakman said. "We can all get mixed up on the days, let alone a senior citizen."
To solve the situation, students were advised to call a supervisor, who would not give a discount, but would instead offer the senior citizen a coupon worth a dollar off her entire order.
Pretending to be a customer, Horak watched as the cashier began to ring up her $3 boxes of cereal on the register in a classroom at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church that was set up to resemble a checkout line at a supermarket.
"Young lady," said pretend cashier Keith Choice, although, at 27, he was the young one, "that cereal is on sale for $2. I do apologize for that."
"Would you like to see my customer card?" Horak asked. Choice grinned sheepishly. As polite as he was with the "young lady," he had forgotten a core question: asking about the card. This was a training scenario written by Noel Petry, 35.
When it was time to pay, Horak pretended to pull out her $400 paycheck. Now what?
What followed was a highly technical discussion led by Oakman, the longtime trainer at ShopRite, who had moved over to teach the Uplift Workforce Solutions classes. The upshot? The first box of cereal would be free to the customer because Choice rang up the wrong price and the rest of the boxes would be priced at $2 apiece. However, Choice politely explained that Horak's order was too small to be paid for by such a big check. Conveniently, Horak dug a $10 bill out of her purse to pay for the cereal.
The Inquirer is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on issues facing people coming out of prison. The piece is part of an occasional series — across the region and across platforms — on the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.