Monday, October 11, 2010

Stop following me.

Kohl's is a remarkable store. By some miracle of retail management, they always manage to have exactly two checkout assistants fewer than is needed at any time, no matter what the customer volume. That takes skill. (It's certainly harder than Petco's approach, which is to have exactly zero.)

Why Britney? Well, I Googled the phrase "Kohl's checkout line" to find an illustration for this post, and this was the third image that came up. (The first was a picture of a J.C. Penney store.) Guests should go figure.
But waiting on line (as opposed to online) to pay for wineglasses gives you time to reflect on the extraordinary fact that, despite having the largest vocabulary of any language, English has very few true synonyms. By which I mean there are tiny shades of difference in meaning and of usage that prevent even the most closely related words from being interchangeable on all occasions. Take "little" and "small." You can waste a "little time" on line for a register to open up, but to waste a "small time" doesn't sound quite right.

And as one-by-one, the line ahead of you is gradually whittled down, you also get several opportunities to cringe every time you hear the standard corporate script Kohl's has clearly issued its employees: "Following guest, please."

Now let's leave aside that, as a "guest," I generally expect to have someone hand me a drink as soon as I cross the threshold, and then possibly the host will wash my feet with his or her hair, weeping over the inadequacy of the amenities. It's not a term I expect from an institution that exists to remove my credit card from my pocket and wring it dry.

(Bearing in mind that the checkout is further slowed by trying to get each punter to apply for a Kohl's credit card every time and by an encouragement to go online and rate their 30-second performance. Okay, you didn't drop my glassware and you didn't bite me in the neck. Gold star, then. You don't even have to make change. Why is it that every transaction these days -- on the phone, in a store, on a website -- requires marking?)

But that "following" sounds wrong, too, although I can't exactly articulate why. I think it's the fact that it's asking you to self-identify yourself as "following" in the present tense; in other words, I wouldn't describe myself as following until after I've followed. "Following" is not synonymous with "next," which is the word they really want.

"Who's following?" sounds weird when you want to ask "Who's next?" "I'm the next in line," I may shout irritably at the seven-foot, ape-like queue-jumper with the swastika tattooed on his forehead -- or maybe not. But were I to say "I'm the following in line," he would probably wince and call weakly for some sal volatile.

Are you following me? Oh, it's good stuff, this, isn't it? Tell your friends.

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