And Now - the Check-Out Line Ombudsman!

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In an effort to promote a spirit of happiness and goodwill among patrons, more and more retail businesses are employing "greeters." These people linger near store entrances, offering cheery salutation to every passing shopper.

Whoever came up with this idea was looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Most consumers, like me, are resigned to the task when they arrive at a store. Does management honestly think my outlook will be improved by having a jovial gatekeeper bark out "How you doin' today?"

How I'm doin' isn't an issue when I walk in. My need for contact with an empathetic customer-service representative is most intense during the concluding stages of the visit, when I am stuck in a checkout line that moves at the pace of glacial ice.

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All of us have been in this movie. The eagerness of the quest has dissipated amid the jostling crowds, stale air, and the nagging fear that time is running out. I yearn to bolt from the tired masses and breathe free, but the path to the cashier is blocked by a wall of humanity. There I stand, staring at the back of a stranger's head, anxiety mounting with each passing moment of inactivity.

IT would be nice to have the checkout line staffed by a roving ombudsman whose sole responsibility is to answer the overpowering question: "What the heck is taking those people in front so long?"

I wouldn't expect this line mediator to actually speed up the process. Delays at the cash register often have plausible (albeit frustrating and sometimes ridiculous) explanations. But revealing key details of each windy transaction would help those cooling their to heels maintain patience.

For example, a mediator might offer insight as to why that guy is writing a check for a pack of gum: "Maybe he considers the purchase a business expense and wants complete documentation for his tax returns."

The mediator could let everyone know whether the bored-looking clerk is going to let the angry woman use her expired coupons. "Let's hope so. We don't want to have to call the manager now, do we, folks?" No, we sure don't.

A nosy mediator would be able to pinpoint the man wearing cologne that smells like decaying redwood and makes people's eyes water and maybe find out its name as a consumer alert.

Introspection, conjecture, clarity, and cleverness are qualities that would make a line mediator an able assistant to every consumer, and it seems inevitable that one of the major chains will realize the benefits of the position. Which company will be first in line? For that answer, I guess shoppers will just have to keep waiting.

* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here Fish Cake' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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