The conversations I heard while stacking supermarket shelves in S'pore during Covid-19

A behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of supermarket staff.

Mothership | July 10, 2021, 02:00 PM

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PERSPECTIVE: "It would be nice to be for people to just go in and understand that [supermarket staff] are very nice human beings who are trying to help them."

Leonard Koh, who is a group exercise instructor in Singapore, found himself without work during Circuit Breaker last year due to the closure of gyms and other sports facilities. 

To earn some extra money, Koh took up a job as a supermarket assistant at Cold Storage in late-April, until a few days before gyms reopened on Jun. 21.

While working, he got into the habit of observing the conversations happening around or involving him, and writing down the interesting ones. He compiled many of them in an e-book, Tales from the Supermarket. More information about the e-book is available online here

He spoke with Mothership about what he observed in his two months working at Cold Storage, and how he hopes that customers can treat supermarket staff differently. 

By Leonard Koh, as told to Jane Zhang

Last year during circuit breaker, everything was closed. So basically, I was out of a job, in a way.

And I decided, you know what, maybe I should go and find a part-time job to earn some supplementary income, while the gyms are closed. So I found a job at Cold Storage, and basically went over to help out.

The role that they assigned me is like a supermarket assistant. My job was basically to help stack the shelves, from jams all the way to pasta.

Started writing down my interactions and posting them online

I'm someone who usually likes to observe life that happens around me. So, sometimes when people talk on trains, or in public transport and all, I do pick all these up as well. Maybe I'm that kaypoh.

Looking at people with different perspectives and hearing what's happening in their lives, sometimes it's interesting to just think about, "Hmm, so this is happening with her or with him? Does it relate to me? How does it relate? Is it funny?"

If some of these conversations are funny, I tend to share them on my Facebook as well.

For the supermarket stories, it started off with the first conversation — the chamomile:

Conversation between Customer 1 (C1) and Customer 2 (C2). Screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket.

That evening, after work when I was on my way home, I decided to type the whole conversation out on my Facebook. And then all my friends reacted to it — it blew up on my own Facebook profile, with my Facebook friends.

I was like, "Okay, these people seem to enjoy this." So I thought I'd just continue writing it. Almost every other day, I would post a conversation that I experienced or overheard.

Conversation between Customer 1 (C1) and Customer 2 (C2). Screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket.

I kept them in my mind till after my shift, because during my shift, there would not be time to check my phone. I was literally running in and out of the back store to stock up shelves, and attending to customers. Stocking rice, especially, because at that point in time, the staple foods were being hoarded by a lot of people.

It was really hectic, because during that time, there was a shortage of staff at Cold Storage, which is why they hired a lot of part-timers like myself. It was crazy until the end of the shift, when I found some free time to write.

Relatable stories

After sharing the stories for a while, I was like, "Huh, it's not too bad." So a friend actually recommended, "Why don't you compile all of these and put this into an e-book?"

So I was like, "That's a good idea," and that's what I did.

The response has been good. Everyone's been telling me they have had a good laugh over it, and they found some of the stories really touching. They could relate to some of the conversations, which is very nice.

Like the one about the grandmother buying cereal for her grandkids:

Conversation between customer (C) and Koh (Me). Screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket.

My favourite story from the book would be this one. That's the one that made me tear up when I was talking to her, because it's something my grandma would do as well.

And for this grandma to come all the way down to Cold Storage during Circuit Breaker just the buy cereal for her grandkids — and I mean, she didn't know brands, or what kind of cereal they'd like — that really touched my heart.

It was a very nice conversation I had with her.

Kind customers

Strangely enough I do [miss working there]. It was quite an experience that I really didn't expect.

Because I mean, generally, when we go to the supermarket, we just go in and get stuff and then head out.

But to find out the behind-the-scenes of what supermarket staff do, it's actually quite interesting — to find out how goods come in, how they are kept behind, how they are stacked up, the process of it, and how staff handle customers. It was really interesting to me.

And the staff there were fantastic. There was this team spirit, even though it was really tough work during Circuit Breaker with minimal staff, they were very, very joyful to work with. And that really motivated me to work every day.

The customers — most of them — were very nice as well. And they were very encouraging.

This story is also not in the book, because I didn't know whether I should write it:

My role as a supermarket assistant was also included an SDA (Safe Distancing Ambassador) sort of role, whereby I stood in front of the supermarket, taking temperatures, guiding people in, that sort of thing.

One of the nicest thing that happened during that time was when a foreign worker — who was thankfully not part of the dormitories issue — came, and as he exited the supermarket, he approached me and gave me a bottle of Evian water to thank me for all that I do, which was simply to take temperature and letting people in.

That shocked all my colleagues and even myself. That was probably the nicest thing that ever happened.

And, I mean, during that time, where it was very tense, especially the dormitory cases, that really touched me.

Unimaginable situations

You'd be surprised to hear and experience what some people actually do or say within the supermarkets. I mean, it's incomprehensible. You wouldn't think about it until you work there and realise that these sort of people do exist.

It's quite amazing to me as well. I was very stumped when some of the experiences happened to me. I was like, "You've got to be kidding me."

My colleague and I were exchanging stories, and then she told me about this story that happened to her:

Conversation between customer (C) and staff (S). Screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket.

I was like, "Whoa, wow. Seriously?" I wouldn't expect anyone to do that — to try to return half a tub of yoghurt, for refund, after they had eaten it. So you just go like, "That's impossible." But then it really happened.

Customer screaming at staff

There were some nasty customers as well. There was one experience — which I didn't write in the book — when one customer started screaming at one of the staff who was in charge of the deli counter.

He wanted to buy ham. That ham that he wanted had some holes in it, so she was being nice and said, "Why don't I pick out something better for you?"

And he just started screaming at her for no apparent reason, until she cried.

She's a really nice lady, and she's always doing her best. So it came as a shock to hear someone screaming, from eight aisles away. And the deli is so far in front, and I could hear from the back — it was that loud.

That was actually very shocking to me. It was a really bad experience for her as well, because after that, she walked to the back store and started crying. I'm sure it was very embarrassing for her.

I felt very sorry for her that day. It was very uncalled for. And all this because of a slice of ham.

This was not in the book, but it's something that these very nice staff face every day from some members of the public.

Conversation between customer (C) and Koh (Me). Screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket.

Be kind to supermarket staff

But overall, working at Cold Storage was a really enjoyable experience because of the team.

And it made me feel that some Singaporeans are very entitled. That idea that you have to serve them in a certain way because they are paying customers.

Conversation between customer (C) and Koh (Me). Screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket.

That's one of the things that I took away while working at Cold Storage. And that really reminded me to be nicer to the supermarket staff every time I walk in as well.

I'd just like to reiterate that — to be nice to the supermarket staff.

I hope people really just be kind to them. A lot of them would have worked very hard for a very long day — some of them start from 5am to about 2pm, some from 2pm all the way to 10:30pm.

So it would be nice to be for people to just go in and understand that these are very nice human beings who are trying to help them.

These wonderful human beings break their backs every single day so you can buy your groceries and stock up your toilet paper. The least you can do is to be polite to them and say "please" and "thank you."

Top photos screenshot from Tales from the Supermarket and by Ricky Wee. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.