Retail Checkout Takes A Seat

Consider the consumer perspective: She walks into, say, a grocery store with the intent to stock up for her family for the week. Glancing across the rows of checkout lines as she enters, she notices a peculiar sight:

All of the cashiers are sitting down.

Might this display be perceived by the consumer — even subconsciously — as an indication that the employees are not as efficient or attentive as they would be in the (more common) case that they were standing? And if so, could this perception be strong enough to the consumer that it carries over to her view of the retailer’s entire operation and compel her to either purchase fewer items than she had originally intended or even shop somewhere else altogether?

Concerns over those very questions appear to have been at the heart of CVS’ and JPMorgan Chase’s defenses in a class-action lawsuit against the pharmacy and bank chain, respectively, in California, whereby employees for both were fighting for their rights to sit down on the job — not in the pejorative sense, meaning to slack off with respect to their duties, but to literally sit down while working.

In an unanimous decision last month, as Los Angeles Times reported, the California Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs, ruling (in the words of Justice Carol A. Corrigan): “There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing.”

This victory for the CVS cashiers and JPMorgan Chase tellers in California — which, similar to the situation involving that state’s move earlier this year to raise the minimum wage, is likely to have a ripple effect for businesses nationwide — now finds retail companies pondering how much wiggle room they might have in insisting that customer-facing employees (cashiers in particular) stay on their feet while working, how much measurable impact the optics of a seated cashier (versus a standing one) incur on their business and whether or not pushing back on the issue might be even worth it in the long run.

Publicly, CVS, for one, appears to have taken the legal determination in stride, with spokesman Mike DeAngelis telling L.A. Times shortly thereafter that “CVS Health is pleased with the California Supreme Court’s ruling in this matter.”

It’s possible, however, that CVS isn’t sweating it given the somewhat open-ended wording of the court’s decision regarding “suitable seating,” which allows retailers some discretion in determining “the totality of the circumstances” that would make allowing an employee to work while seated a feasible option.

A lot of retail businesses might be inclined to take advantage of that aforementioned wiggle room by sheer virtue of the fact that having cashiers on their feet is simply the way that it’s always been done.

As Jason Goldberg, vice president of commerce at Razorfish, recently told Retail Dive: “Retailers have always liked the notion of employees standing to feel more open to approach from shoppers. It’s certainly true that people feel more comfortable engaging each other at eye level, so it can be awkward when a customer is standing and has to look down at a seated store clerk. The idyllic model has always been Mr. Olsen from ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ standing at the front of his shop to greet and help customers.”

(Thanks for getting that theme song stuck in our heads, Mr. Goldberg.)

Beyond mere managerial preference or traditions, though, there is even some legal precedence supporting retailers’ argument for having cashiers work on their feet.

Retail Dive points to a case heard in the U.S. District Court in Northern California — involving the right of Kmart employees to work while seated — in which the court recognized Kmart’s “genuine customer service rationale for requiring its cashiers to stand,” noting that the retailer “has every right to be concerned with [the] efficiency — and the appearance of efficiency — of its checkout service.”

Anthony J. DeCristoforo, a partner at Sacramento law firm Stoel Rives, observed to the outlet: “Many retailers believe that employees provide better customer service while standing, or at least, they believe that employees are perceived by customers to provide better service while standing.”

Whether it’s tied to a measurable fact or not, consumer perception does mean a great deal in the retail business. And if more evidence can be provided showing that the mere sight of seated cashiers inside a store can turn off customers from spending money there, you can bet that a lot of retailers won’t be taking the recent court ruling sitting down.


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